Jeff is a homeless man who finds exactly what he needs at the new Kaneohe Joint Outreach Center (JOC): a hand reaching out to him.
Today, the hand offered in greeting to the longtime Windward resident was extended by Andy Mounthongdy who, like the rest of the “team” working at the homeless clinic, has already begun to know the regulars who stop by.
Mounthongdy is the executive director of the Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui (“H4”), a nonprofit associated with The Queen’s Health Systems and founded to provide urgent care services to the homeless, who otherwise turn to the emergency rooms.
In addition to the four-story services center under development in Iwilei, H4 has three JOC clinics, in Chinatown and at the men’s shelter nearby, and this one, located opposite the Kaneohe police station.
Mounthongdy gives credit to the “team,” the medical and operational staffers who help clients get basic medical attention and, most importantly, get situated. Clients often need an assist in securing social services due to lost documents and other problems, and the JOC can put them at least on a path and headed in the right direction.
A neighborhood church community is helping, too, gathering donations of clothes and supplies that were still being organized as a kind of free store.
Now 42 and the married father of three sons, the Laos-born Mounthongdy can remember times when he, his parents, grandmother and seven siblings needed help in the worst way. Refugees from a war-torn country, they fled first to Thailand where they lived in a camp, and then to Hawaii.
Public housing was the salvation for the large family; Mounthongdy can say with pride that he and each of his brothers and sisters went to college and have found success.
He reflects on this life experience, which resonates with his present surroundings, and brings him satisfaction in his work with the homeless. This was a career stop that a certified public accountant never expected to make.
“You know, sometimes you’re just lucky in life, and that’s what happened,” he said with a smile.
Question: How did H4 start?
Answer: Several years ago, The Queen’s Health Systems commissioned a report. … Queen’s knew we were being overburdened by homeless … and what we found out was that between the Queen’s Punchbowl campus and the West Oahu campus, Queen’s was taking care of almost 66%, approximately two-thirds of the homeless population in the state of Hawaii. …
So we knew we had to do something different. So we worked with (Lt. Gov.) Josh Green — at the time he was a senator. … We asked him to figure out this overburden on Queen’s to serve the homeless folks. When we look at our costs to serve the homeless, it was approximately $40 million a year. And Queen’s would get reimbursed $28-29 million … so Queen’s loses $10-12 million a year.
Around the beginning of 2017, he (Green) started convening different committee to figure out how to tackle this issue. … At that time, H4 didn’t exist, it was wasn’t even called H4; it was just the Homeless Project. …
I didn’t come on board yet. I did do some financial pro forma, on what it could look like, like if it provided urgent care.
Q: What were you doing before, at Queen’s?
A: I was in finance; I had a CPA background.
Q: How did you step into this? It’s different from accounting.
A: In the fall of 2017, my boss, (then CEO) Art Ushijima called me into his office and said, “Andy, I want you to project-manage this Homeless Project, get it to fruition, then we can hire a permanent executive director to run it.” …
At the time, the vision was to bring it up at Kuwili Street, the four-story building. That’s always been the original vision. There’s the hygiene center there, and we’re going to build urgent care, medical respite and permanent housing. …
Q: But you are long-term the executive director?
A: I’m on loan for five years to this project; after five years, I have to ask people to help me find a job. (Laughs.) There is supposed to be something available for me, back at Queen’s. …
It (H4) is a separate organization, its own nonprofit. It operates independently of Queen’s. …
Q: Were you involved in social services previously?
A: Our focus is health care, first and foremost. … The idea is not for us to do everything; it’s really about finding partners to work with. …
There are all these contracts out there that the state, the city give to all these different organizations. And to this day, nobody really can figure out the inventory of how much we spend on homeless services. You go ahead and ask the state; they have no idea. They may know their component, but then there is all this funding from federal; there’s also city funding. … It’s hard, because not everyone is open to sharing what their funding sources are.
Q: What is the time frame for the operation of the Kuwili Street center?
A: The hygiene center is open. The two housing floors — the medical respite and the permanent housing — the city hoped to finish construction at the end of this year. So that could open in … let’s assume Feb. 1, 2020.
When they finish construction on the housing floors, H4 will start construction on the health-care floor. … Then we can potentially open around May. …
So that’s the vision. That will become the hub of H4. So places like the Kaneohe Joint Outreach Center … this will become like a satellite.
Q: What are you looking for, in other locations for Joint Outreach Centers? Is there a next-one planned?
A: People have always asked us to take a look at other sites. We don’t need to go into a location that already has services — you want to look for places that lack that service. Right now, Kuwili really is our main focus. I need to get that up and running.
We can evaluate other locations and sites. But before we go anywhere, the first thing we need to focus on is what it’s going to look like and who’s going to help fund it. Because each one is a private-public partnership, right? We can’t always get private to pay for everything. …
At the end of the day, health care for the homeless, there’s no margin. It has to be somewhat subsidized, or government-funded, whether the federal level, the state or the city.
We experience like a 30% uninsured rate, in our one year of operation in Chinatown. Thirty percent! There’s no business that would be in business if they had 30% of their population that can’t pay for services. We’re like a safety net for this homeless population.
Q: It can fill what they need, without the overhead of the emergency room?
Q: What was here before (Kaneohe JOC)?
A: It was vacant, definitely for well over a year. … We were approached by three of the public leaders to consider opening up another Joint Outreach Center like the one we have in Chinatown. …
Prior to this, for two years, I believe, even Councilmember Ikaika Anderson, he tried to look for a place in Kailua. The first thing you get is, you will get a pushback.
Q: That would be my question. Did you hear of community resistance here?
A: We do have some. Even if you try to find a space, especially in the commercial district, I’m sure the landlord would be reluctant to rent to you … we just need to be aware of that.
Q: With the police station nearby, does it feel safer to have the cops right there?
A: In a way. Because when they come in here, obviously they see police cars. So I think there is some sense of security.
Q: How is the Chinatown JOC doing?
A: We have two clinics; one at the (Institute for Human Services) men’s shelter, and in Chinatown. But I was actually surprised myself that 45% of our new patients start in Chinatown. … It’s very busy. On a slow day we might only have 10 patients; on a busy day, it could be as high as 25 patients. …
Q: Is this work satisfying to you?
A: It comes down to, I have an opportunity to make a difference. And if there’s a greater being out there, and if there was one thing that he probably wanted me to give back to humanity, this might be it. So, I have this one chance, and I just try not to screw this up.