A 32-year-old former Army Ranger from Lahaina told a roomful of military veterans at Ala Moana Beach Park’s McCoy Pavilion on Friday how he ended up homeless after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and then discovered a new life after tapping into the kind of services that surrounded the struggling vets.
As county, state, federal and nonprofit agencies work to house more homeless vets across the islands, the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System organized Friday’s annual “Veterans Stand Down” to connect veterans with a wide range of services, including help finding permanent housing.
|SECOND ANNUAL LANDLORD SUMMIT
>> When: Oct. 11. Registration begins at 2:30 p.m.; the program will run from 3 to 4 p.m. Social service providers will be available for questions from 4 to 5 p.m.
>> Where: Mission Memorial Auditorium, on the grounds of Honolulu Civic Center. Metered parking available at the Frank F. Fasi Municipal garage.
>>What: Landlords and property managers who have rented their units to formerly homeless tenants will share their experiences. Community service providers and agencies plan to provide details on how the “Housing First” program affects landlords and property managers.
BY THE NUMBERS
>> 413: Number of homeless military veterans counted in January on Oahu
>> 12: Percent decrease in homeless military veterans on Oahu from 2015 to 2016
>> 44: Percent decrease in homeless military veterans on Oahu between January and August
>> 809: Number of homeless veterans on Oahu who have been placed into permanent housing since January 2015
>> 183: Number of homeless veterans on Oahu who remain homeless and are known “by name” to social service outreach workers
Source: Veteran Affairs Pacific Island Health Care System
The goal of the event is “so every veteran has a roof over their head and a place to call home,” said Ron Han, director of the state Office of Veterans’ Services who introduced a series of speakers that included Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Finn.
Finn told the 150 or so veterans and 30 to 40 service providers gathered inside McCoy Pavilion that he felt “invincible” during his first deployment to Iraq after enlisting in 2002.
But following subsequent deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, “things kind of fell apart,” Finn said. “I was depressed.”
In a more detailed, subsequent interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Finn explained that he ended up on Oahu after his Army service and got a poolside job at a Waikiki hotel where he frequently showed up to work reeking of alcohol.
He was also self-medicating with marijuana, lost both his job and his Keeaumoku area apartment in 2010 and ended up sleeping in his 2008 Acura TL at Ala Moana Beach Park as Finn’s car lender was hunting down the vehicle to repossess it.
“I was like, ‘How did I get myself into this?’” Finn remembered asking himself. “‘How do I get out of it?’ I didn’t even think I had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) up to that point. I was definitely in denial.”
He went to the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System for mental health treatment and, thanks to treatment, “now can identify whether I’m happy, sad or depressed,” Finn told the vets, who applauded wildly.
The VA then referred Finn to U.S. Vets at Kalaeloa, but he first had to get clean and sober to enter the program that includes on-site housing, he said.
Through federal housing vouchers designed for military veterans and rental deposit assistance provided by Catholic Charities Hawai‘i, Finn was able to rent a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Waikiki in 2011 that “gave me a stable base,” he told the Star-Advertiser.
He went back to school, learned computer skills, got married in 2014 and then moved to Silicon Valley in 2015, where he now lives in the city of Cupertino and works as a techie integrating commercial security system programs.
Finn said he hopes his story helps other island veterans seek help and encourages Oahu landlords to take a chance on renting to the homeless, especially military veterans.
“Give us a chance,” he asked landlords who might have doubts.
On Oct. 11, the city plans to hold its second annual landlord summit to ask more Oahu landlords and property managers to rent their units to homeless people under a program called “Housing First” that doesn’t bar tenants who drink or even use drugs while getting help for their issues — which could include mental illness.
In return, landlords are assured of guaranteed rent and access to social service case managers to deal with any renter problems.
“Through collaboration with our federal, state, nonprofit and business partners, we’ve housed more than 1,000 people over the last two years, including 809 veterans,” Jun Yang, the city’s executive director of housing, said in a statement. “We hope this event will contribute to the positive momentum by advancing landlord-tenant relationships and provide an opportunity for landlords to meet and have discussions with key representatives from all branches of government, homeless service providers, and landlords who have participated in housing those in need across Oahu.”
Then on Nov. 19, the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System will hold its second annual “Beyond Boots: Women Veterans Conference” at Kalaeloa. The event is similar to Friday’s Veterans Stand Down but is aimed solely at female veterans and their issues, said Amy Rohlfs, spokeswoman for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System.
The women’s conference is designed for veterans such as Army Reserve Sgt. Lino Esau, 48, who spent 26 years in the Reserves and has been enrolled at U.S. Vets since June.
Like other vets who showed up at McCoy Pavilion on Friday, Esau gladly scooped up toiletries and other items that were offered, including an olive drab duffel bag to carry them all.
Asked what services or programs would benefit her most of all, Esau’s answer was simple:
“I don’t have a home,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to get.”
Lisa Howard, who is based in Reno, Nev., is the acting director of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System and likes the combined efforts underway in Hawaii to reduce homelessness among military veterans.
All of the key government officials, agencies and social service providers seem to be working in concert, along with continued outreach to fair-market landlords, Howard said.
“We’re still not there,” Howard said. “But I don’t see anything that’s missing in Honolulu.”