Three years after homeless people on Oahu were first placed into market-rate, Housing First rental units, the state wants to add another $3 million to expand the concept to Kauai, Maui and Hawaii island starting in April.
Under the program, imported from mainland communities, landlords are assured of rent and a social service contact to call to address any problems with their tenants, who may be dealing with various issues that could include mental illness and substance abuse.
“There’s no Housing First on the neighbor islands,” said state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige. “We at least want to get it started on the neighbor islands.”
In the 2016 homeless census, Oahu’s homeless population increased by 37 people, representing a gain of less than 1 percent. At the same time, neighbor island homelessness grew by 12 percent on Hawaii island, 30 percent on Kauai and 1 percent on Maui, for a combined statewide homeless population of 7,620 people.
The current Housing First money for Oahu comes out of $12 million that the Legislature designated last year to address homelessness. But Gov. David Ige’s administration wants $3 million to keep the program running on Oahu and expand it across the state: $1.5 million for Oahu, $750,000 for Hawaii island, $510,000 for Maui and $240,000 for Kauai.
The state Department of Human Services on Feb. 10 issued a request for proposals that are due by March 10 to find agencies that would match homeless people with neighbor island landlords and property managers.
Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell teamed up in 2015 to plead with sometimes reluctant Oahu landlords to take a chance on renting to the homeless — and have since seen the number of willing landlords increase.
The idea can be attractive to landlords on two fronts, said Heather Pierucki, director of behavioral health at Helping Hands Hawaii, who personally has coaxed homeless people out of their Oahu encampments and into rental apartments.
Landlords get guaranteed rent and on-call help with any renters’ problems — while personally helping to reduce island homelessness, she said.
For landlords, Pierucki said, “there’s a practical component and a compassion component. They may see this need and they want to participate.”
On Oahu, separate Housing First programs run by the city and state found permanent homes for 196 people by June 2015. By the end of this year, 600 homeless people on Oahu are expected to be placed into Housing First rental units.
Under Housing First, federal vouchers pay the bulk of the rent, and tenants contribute 30 percent, often through their government benefits.
For Sims Santa Ana, 53, Housing First worked after 15 years living on the street.
“I had given up on life,” Santa Ana said in his one-bed, one-bath apartment in Kalihi which rents for $1,200. “I just gave up.”
Santa Ana, a 1981 Aiea High School graduate, had been working at an auto parts store in Pearl City and was living with the mother of his two then-young sons when they parted ways.
He moved out and into his 1963 Volkswagen bug, and lost his job because, he said, he simply gave up.
That began a spiral that included the back-to-back-to-back deaths of his father, brother and sister, and estrangement from his two sons, who no longer speak to him. Santa Ana also had been estranged from an older son and daughter from a previous relationship.
His problems increased after he got arrested for shoplifting and, because of prior arrests, was sent to prison for three years after he tried to steal Pokemon cards for his boys for Christmas.
“I just wanted to see the smile on their face,” Santa Ana said.
He said he suffered trauma during his three years inside the prison at Halawa, but did not go into details.
When he was released, Santa Ana eventually ended up in a tent at the growing Kapalama Canal homeless encampment that Caldwell shut down in 2015 with a fence and a ban on putting anything into the water.
When Santa Ana applied for food stamps and welfare benefits in 2014, which required a medical examination, he discovered that the voices he had been hearing in his head were the result of schizophrenia.
The diagnosis, after so many years, finally made sense.
“I knew I needed help,” Santa Ana said, “but I never knew where to go.”
After turning down repeated offers from social service outreach workers, something about Pierucki and her persistence finally nudged Santa Ana to move out of his tent along the canal.
Santa Ana’s first Housing First apartment in Kalihi didn’t work out when the landlord decided not to renew his one-year lease after Santa Ana repeatedly invited his homeless friends over.
But in his new apartment, Santa Ana said he has limited his friends’ visits and follows two basic rules: “Just keep the noise down and keep the house clean. Right now I’m learning about responsibility and wanting to live.”
April will mark his first anniversary in his new apartment.
Santa Ana has since reconciled with his oldest son and daughter and learned that he has three grandchildren. He’s even been entrusted to baby-sit them a few times.
But he remains estranged from the two sons he left when he broke up with their mother — the sons he said he stole Pokemon cards for, only to end up in prison.
They’re now young adults who Santa Ana said he believes are living in Kapolei.
Brushing away tears, Santa Ana said his message for them after all this time: “I’m just sorry I wasn’t there for them when they was young.”
And for lawmakers, landlords, medical professionals, social service workers and all of the others behind the scenes who changed the life of a chronically homeless person after 15 years on the street, Santa Ana has another message:
“I never believed there were people willing to help,” Santa Ana said. “I thought, ‘This for real or what?’ To this day I’m a believer, and I’m really thankful.”