William Sager, 66, went from a hospital bed to nine months of homelessness and then, Friday morning, woke up in his new Chinatown apartment to meet downstairs with the mayor, two City Council members and officials from the state and social services agencies.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” Sager said after the first night in his new “micro- unit” on North Hotel Street. The abandoned building there last contained a barbershop and an eatery and was converted to house the homeless at a cost of $900,000.
Sager is the first occupant of six new studio apartments — ranging in size from 210 to 320 square feet — reserved specifically for the homeless in the city’s Winston Hale housing complex.
After spending his first night in his first real home in nine months, Sager said he realized how many things he had been missing: “privacy, a shower — a lot of the things I used to take for granted.”
Sager is one of 31 homeless people at the center of an unprecedented effort by the state, city and nonprofit agencies to find them permanent homes in Chinatown’s Winston Hale and Pauahi Hale projects.
The state, which is helping to coordinate the effort, is 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, originally promised 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.
U.S. Vets has since provided an additional housing voucher for one more person, bringing the number of people to be housed to 31.
Sager said a horrific traffic accident put him in a hospital bed for nine months before he ended up homeless for another nine months and reliant on a wheelchair.
He credited one of his social workers, Ching-Ying Jao, intensive case worker for Helping Hands Hawaii, for getting him off the street.
“Jao was with me every step of the way,” Sager said. “I just did what he told me to do.”
Twenty homeless people, including Sager, have now been housed in either Winston Hale or Pauahi Hale since December, said Heather Pierucki, director of behavioral health for Helping Hands Hawaii.
Another 11 are ready to join them but face the same hurdles that often prevent homeless people from changing their lives, Pierucki said.
“Some still don’t have an ID,” she said, which is required for both a job and housing.
Before a traditional Hawaiian blessing of the micro-units, Mayor Kirk Caldwell thanked Council members Carol Fukunaga and Ann Kobayashi and representatives from the various organizations, including the engineering and architecture firm G70, that oversaw the renovations.
“We’re talking about helping people who otherwise may be on our streets and sidewalks and our parks, just struggling to get by every day and providing them a house — a place where they can take care of themselves, be secure, take a shower and bath and use the bathroom privately and just live a better life,” Caldwell said.
Darryl Vincent, chief operating officer of U.S. Vets, said the efforts underway at Winston Hale and Pauahi Hale show that ending homelessness on Oahu requires everyone’s involvement.
“We all play a role, no matter how small it is or how big it is,” Vincent said. “It takes all of us to solve this problem.”