At Hale Kipa, a social service agency that assists some 2,000 at-risk youth and their families statewide each year, youth are not viewed as limited by their personal histories or behaviors. Rather, they are seen as packed with potential.
“I believe in our youth and their potential. I believe in the work we do, and I believe that we are making a difference, with a population that is extraordinarily near and dear to my heart,” said Punky Pletan-Cross, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. He added, “I hope over time that we can continue to break down the stereotypes about how people think about this population and how people relate to them,” and step up availability of needed resources.
Last month, Hale Kipa, in partnership with Waikiki Health and University of Hawaii Center on the Family, released a study that serves as a snapshot of homeless and unaccompanied youth on Oahu. Among the findings of the Street Youth Study, which surveyed 151 homeless people between the ages of 12 and 24: The average age at which homelessness was first experienced was 14.1 years old; 40 percent had been in foster care, and nearly half had been in juvenile detention. Also, half had parents with substance abuse problems; and more than three-quarters of those surveyed had been emotionally, physically or sexually abused.
Among the key takeaway points, Pletan-Cross said, should be an acknowledgement that these are our kids. “It is too often thought that the youth and young adults on the streets are not local. The study identifies that 44 percent of those surveyed were Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian, which also lines up with our service data at Hale Kipa,” he said.
While growing in a low-income North Dakota neighborhood served by an excellent public school system, Pletan-Cross — whose parents were math teachers — said he developed a “profound sense of social justice and a deep commitment to finding a way to contribute.”
That led him to VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America, a domestic Peace Corp program) in the early 1970s, where he served as a street youth outreach worker. Soon thereafter he founded LUK Inc., a multi-service adolescent and family counseling agency in Central Massachusetts, which mirrors Hale Kipa in terms of service array. Pletan-Cross has headed Hale Kipa since 1998.
Question: How do today’s street youth in Hawaii compare to the youth you met when you joined Hale Kipa?
Answer: Many of the youth still feel safer on the streets than they do at home, and they still build their own “street families.” Life on the streets has never been safe, but it could be argued that it is even more dangerous and complex today than 20 years ago. In addition, these youth are going through normal developmental issues and challenges. And we now know that the adolescent brain is not fully mature at age 18.
Q:How are services structured at the agency?
A: Hale Kipa uses a systemic approach and has an integrated continuum of resources that are available to youth, young adults and their families. We are an agency that is exclusively focused on that population.
… A youth may enter into one of our programs, but over the course of their time with us may also receive other services in the continuum. Hale Kipa is part of the larger fabric of the community, and thus we actively work to collaborate with as many different organizations and entities as possible.
I say “entities” because not all of the resources that young people need are “therapeutic” in a classic sense. Paddling, connecting to one’s cultural heritage, a powerful spiritual or religious belief — all may be very important to a young person and fundamental to their ability to find a way to build on strengths that they have as they continue to take the risks of learning new skills and testing new behaviors.
… Adolescents don’t exist in a vacuum, and they have a connection to their biological families or their hanai families, or whatever family unit they identify with no matter how they have been treated in that situation. This also includes their communities, peer groups, neighbors and others.
A lot of the work that we are doing is trying to find a way to build a new set of natural supports for young people in the community that can replace those that have been either dysfunctional or unhealthy for them while simultaneously trying to assist them in finding meaningful ways to engage with all parts of their system that they are interested in maintaining contact with.
We also want to be certain that we are providing them with opportunity to actively participate in services that they are receiving so that (services) are tailored to their specific needs. That generates a higher level of buy-in and gives us a much greater chance for success.
Q:Plans are in the works to build an $11 million Hale Kipa complex in Ewa. How’s that effort going?
A: We have long known that the vast majority of youth and families that we serve on Oahu come from the central and leeward areas. We believe that we should have a facility that is closer to the population that we serve, and with the growth of these areas, it will make even more sense in 15 years.
That complex has been long in the planning stages. We are at the end of our fundraising and are awaiting construction financing, at which point we will break ground. The new facility will enhance agency integration as well as have two shelters, strengthening the connection of all staff to the youth and families we serve.
Q: Are there any overnight shelters tailored specifically for people under age 18 and minor-related concerns?
A: Strictly from a harm-reduction approach, it is a good idea. But how do we do that in an ethical and responsible way, given mandated reporter laws, among other factors? And what are the medium- and long-term strategies and interventions?
The Street Youth Study clearly indicates that many of these youth have already been involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Is it reasonable to think that they will return to those systems for services?
… There is an existing shelter network that is funded and licensed by the state Department of Human Services that also receives funding from Family Court and the Office of Youth Services. These emergency shelters are intended to provide a safe and stable place for runaways, homeless youth, and youth whose families are in crisis. They have a significant amount of structure. And we have learned that as a result they are not particularly attractive to youth who have already interacted with the juvenile justice system and child welfare.
While our shelters do allow youth to enter without immediate need for parental notification, at some point the parents and/or child welfare services are contacted for a longer-term plan. We are having conversations about what we could do differently.
… Even though service providers are willing to take unaccompanied homeless minors, we still need to address the unwillingness of those youth, particularly the older adolescents, to participate in the kind of program structure that currently exists.
Q: What do you find most satisfying about your work?
A: I learned very early in my career that my talents and abilities were best used in supporting those who work in human services. … I have been an organizer all my career. What gives me the most satisfaction is to know that there are people at Hale Kipa who care as deeply about youth as I would like them to and that we are making a difference every day.
I admire the population we serve. I have tremendous respect for their courage, their persistence, their perseverance, and their tenacity. I know that they don’t often have the opportunities that other young people do, many don’t have a stable family situation or parents who are committed to their education.
With disrupted and often chaotic childhoods they may not have the opportunity to play sports or get involved in the kinds of social activities that could enrich and enhance their lives. And yet, when we are privileged to work with them, they test us and test us until they can trust us. … When they trust us, they persevere and persist.
… I am reminded about a clip from the movie “Invictus,” where (Nelson) Mandela talks about there being times when he just wanted to lie down and give up. But he didn’t, nor do our youth and families. And that is why I do what I do.