It was move-in day Tuesday for five chronically homeless people who are part of a massive, all-hands-on-deck effort by the state, city and social service agencies to get 30 homeless people off the street and into Chinatown apartments by June.
Before they got their first glimpse of their first real home in years, some of the homeless had all but given up.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Destiny Young, 31. “I didn’t think there were people who could help me.”
Two years ago the Honolulu Star-Advertiser came across Young on North Pauahi Street in Chinatown as she left the island’s only “hygiene center” after taking a shower.
In order to get clean each day, Young would take a three-hour, round-trip bus ride from Wahiawa, where she was living in a treehouse.
On Tuesday, Young could not stop staring at her own shower inside her new 200-square-foot, freshly renovated studio apartment in the city’s Winston Hale public housing project.
As she turned the water off and on, Young said, “I like that. The shower’s the best part. It’s awesome.”
Young is one of 30 homeless people at the center of an unprecedented effort to house people en masse who had been living homeless across Oahu for years. One, from the Windward side, has been homeless for 30 years. Another, from the downtown/Chinatown area, hasn’t had a permanent home in 20 years.
The focus on getting 30 homeless people housed in Pauahi Hale and Winston Hale is separate from the ongoing efforts by the city and state to place homeless people in market-rate rental units across Oahu, where they also will get social service help for problems like substance abuse and mental illness.
But the overall goal is the same.
“We’re getting the people with the highest needs off of the streets and putting them in a stable place where they can get better and not return to homelessness,” said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator. “We know that when you pair people with severe mental health and substance abuse issues with housing, their condition improves dramatically.”
The larger effort to get 30 people off the street and into Winston Hale and Pauahi Hale began Dec. 21 when Jodi Jennette agreed to leave her encampment on Diamond Head for an apartment in Pauahi Hale.
It’ll continue through May, when the last of 30 chronically homeless people is expected to be housed.
While it’s underway the University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family will monitor the progress “so we can replicate and scale this,” said Eddie Mersereau, division chief for the state Health Department’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.
The goal is to plug gaps that often prevent people from getting housing and help.
“It’s all converging at one time,” said Jay Parasco, homeless initiatives coordinator for the city’s Department of Community Services. “Doing a large chunk of 30 people at once is a scale we’re not accustomed to. It seems like a logistical nightmare, but all the pieces are coming into place.”
The city is providing both the housing vouchers and Housing First units in Winston Hale and nearby Pauahi Hale.
Under the Housing First philosophy, clients pay 30 percent of their rent, which usually comes through government assistance, while surrounded by social-service workers to deal with their problems.
The state, which is helping to coordinate the effort, is also administering federal funds to pay for the clients’ case management through Catholic Charities Hawaii and Helping Hands Hawaii.
U.S. Vets, which runs the city’s Housing First program, is providing 30 housing vouchers, and Mental Health Kokua is offering units in the buildings it manages for the city. Kalihi- Palama Health Center is helping to screen homeless clients and help them move in.
Parasco said the homeless clients themselves deserve credit for trusting the offers of help from social-service outreach workers.
“This speaks to the resolve of the outreach and engagement teams who just keep coming back, saying, ‘Trust us’ … and for the clients’ ability to be able to hold on for hope,” Parasco said.
Mersereau used different analogies to describe how various organizations are working together to house Oahu’s homeless:
“This is really a good example of how different entities can come together and work together,” he said. “It’s that potluck mentality where the meal becomes better exponentially.”
Later, Mersereau said, “All of us have to be committed to the partnerships. If we’re all paddling in sync, we’re going to go way straighter in the canoe.”
The result is that some of the most visible homeless across Oahu are now getting into homes, Morishige said.
“We’re really trying to think outside the box to get large numbers of people housed at the same time,” he said.
Changing habits — even bad ones — can be scary, and Michael Kamahana, 61, admitted to being “anxious” as he waited to see his new apartment last week.
He last slept in a permanent home, in Kalihi, eight years ago.
But when he saw his renovated cinder block studio apartment for the first time — along with a new gas stove and refrigerator — a grin broke out on Kamahana’s face, and he whispered, “I’ll take it.”
While he walked around his new home, Kamahana chanted, “Nice, nice, nice, nice. Very nice.”
As his initial anxiety melted away, Kamahana said he’s now been given “a whole new start at 61.”