More vets on Oahu streets
Hawaii News

More vets on Oahu streets

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    After undergoing triple bypass surgery, homeless Air Force veteran Ralph Ostrea, left, found shelter at a home created for homeless vets by the Institute for Human Services. Keith Billingsley, IHS’s veteran services program coordinator, is the VET House manager. Ostrea and Billingsley laughed outside the Kalihi home, which is festooned with U.S. flags.

While the numbers show Oahu’s overall homeless population grew by just 19 people, the island saw a 9 percent increase in homeless veterans despite a nationwide push to house them.

The additional 36 homeless veterans on Oahu who were counted during the annual January head count belied the ongoing, national Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, in which Mayor Kirk Caldwell participates.

Overall, Oahu’s homeless population increased by just 0.4 percent — to 4,940 people, according to data released last week based on the annual, nationwide Point-in-Time Count. At the same time, the number of homeless veterans on Oahu rose nearly 9 percent — from 413 to 449 people.

The neighbor islands saw a simultaneous 35 percent decrease in homeless veterans — from 257 to 166.

Caldwell said he’s not deterred by the numbers.

“As long as I’m mayor, I’m going to continue to focus on housing our homeless vets,” Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last week after he signed a bill that expands the city’s controversial sit-lie ban into Iwilei and more sections of Kapalama.

On June 5 and 6, the city is scheduled to host two days of training for social service outreach workers at Kapolei Hale to focus on reducing the number of homeless vets.

The Point-in-Time Count data offer no clues on why the homeless veteran population grew while Oahu’s overall homeless population remained relatively stable.

Amy Rohlfs, spokeswoman for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System, suggested two possible reasons.

There may have been a more accurate count this year by the more than 500 volunteers and social service workers who fanned out across Oahu to count the homeless over several days in January.

“We as a community are doing a much better job of identifying veterans and finding them during the Point-in-Time Count,” Rohlfs wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser.

Or, Rohlfs suggested, more homeless could have been drawn to Oahu.

“There are far more resources for homeless veterans here, so it would be natural for veterans to come to Oahu,” she wrote. “We have more options for both transitional and permanent housing here on Oahu.”

Caldwell has often told the story of how then-first lady Michelle Obama lobbied him during a January 2015 trip to Washington, D.C., to become the 25th — and last — of the nation’s mayors to accept the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in her husband’s hometown of Honolulu.

As 2015 ended there were still 51 homeless veterans on Oahu, not meeting the Mayors Challenge target.

But Caldwell continues to participate in the challenge and progress continues, said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing.

From the start of the Mayors Challenge in January 2015 to last month, 1,009 homeless veterans on Oahu have been housed, Alexander said.

The Mayors Challenge is “still ongoing,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t stepped back. We are not backing away.”

President Donald Trump’s new veterans affairs secretary, David Shulkin, told the Associated Press last week that cutting the number of homeless vets nationwide from roughly 40,000 to 10,000 or 15,000 is an “achievable goal.”

But Shulkin told the AP, “We’re still looking at a multi-year process.”

Dave Rolf flew A-4 Skyhawks and A-7 Corsairs as a naval test pilot from 1968 to 1975 and currently serves on Oahu’s Homeless Veteran Task Force — “with a lot of admirals and generals.”

While Rolf said he was “surprised” to see a 9 percent increase for Oahu, he’s hardly discouraged.

“There’s been an awful lot of success in reducing the number of homeless veterans,” he said.

“All of this attention has helped a great deal. A lot of good has come out, but it’s a puzzlement why the numbers would go up 9 percent.”

In the meantime, efforts continue around Oahu to get more military vets off the street.

Housing efforts

The Institute for Human Services, which operates Hawaii’s largest homeless shelter, opened VET House in an undisclosed location in Kalihi in July 2013 with VA funding.

So far, 85 male veterans have gone through the eight-bedroom home.

Two served in World War II, including one who was in his 90s, said Keith Billingsley, who runs the program for IHS.

The goal is to get them healthy and into permanent homes within 90 days, Billingsley said.

Billingsley, 54, is a former Marine who had been homeless himself for two years in Heeia in the mid-1990s.

It was another vet, a Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officer, who encouraged Billingsley to get out of his tent and seek help.

“He kept telling me, ‘You’re a vet. You need to get over to the VA,’” Billingsley said. “That planted a seed.”

Homeless veterans are most successful, Billingsley said, “when they connect with other veterans,” adding, “We understand the camaraderie. We understand the same goals. These guys relate to patriotism.”

Air Force veteran Ralph Ostrea, who turns 75 today, Mother’s Day, is getting ready to leave VET House next month.

He had been living in his 2002 Toyota Corolla near the Kailua- Kona Walmart in January and said Point-in-Time Count volunteers on Hawaii island never reached out to him or counted him.

After he suffered a heart attack, Ostrea was flown to The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, where he underwent triple bypass surgery and was treated for diabetes and bipolar disorder.

When he was discharged from Queen’s on April 6, “I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I didn’t know what to do,” Ostrea said.

IHS initially admitted Ostrea into its Tutu Bert’s House for medically fragile homeless people, also in an undisclosed location in Kalihi.

But Ostrea was much more comfortable at VET House, where he found “guys I can talk to on my level,” he said. “It felt like home.”

Now that he’s stabilized and more optimistic about his future, Ostrea — who’s originally from Mississippi — is contemplating whether he wants to go back to the mainland or remain in the islands.

To get even more veterans off the street, more work needs to be done, said Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS.

“For Oahu to have an exceptional system for serving homeless veterans will require more attention placed on improving our performance on the front end of preventing vet homelessness by knowing how veterans are becoming homeless, having a greater inventory of available units for housing them and sustaining those persons who are housed,” she wrote in an email to the Star- Advertiser.

In the meantime, Caldwell hopes more landlords such as Cathy Chock keep taking in homeless vets.

Landlord to rescue

Since April 2015, Chock has used her family’s two apartment buildings to rent to 12 veterans “who were either living in a shelter or on the streets somewhere or in a car,” Chock said.

Her late father, Army Capt. Wah Tim Chock, was an Army doctor who treated wounded World War II veterans on the mainland. He returned to Oahu after the war and, with his wife, built an apartment building in Waikiki — one of the two their daughter now runs.

One of the Waikiki vets had to be evicted for not paying rent. But the others in both buildings have behaved like typical apartment- building neighbors, Chock said.

However, unlike regular tenants, the formerly homeless veterans often come with government vouchers that ensure payment — as well as social service case workers who respond to complaints and check on their clients, Chock said.

So for Chock, offering a home to vets in her parents’ buildings feels like coming “full circle.”

Plenty of people have told her not to bother helping the homeless.

Chock doesn’t care. And without a better alternative, Chock said she believes that landlords such as herself can help — especially when it comes to vets.

“These are people who have served our country,” she said. “They just need somebody to help them. They just need a home.”

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