Today, on the 182nd anniversary of Queen Lili‘uokalani’s birthday, the trust that bears her name is taking a more intensive approach to housing and helping young Native Hawaiian adults who have aged out of the foster care system and have few opportunities in the era of COVID-19.
“Life has not prepared them for independence,” said Kimo Carvalho, executive director of Lydia’s House, who himself was once in foster care and a beneficiary of the Lili‘uokalani Trust. “One of the things these kids struggle with is just basic life skills. They have no savings, no IDs, no credit. Now in this time of COVID, they are in crisis.”
The Lili‘uokalani Trust bought 18 upper- level apartments and 5,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space that used to house Duane “Dog” Chapman’s Da Kine Bail Bonds at Queen Emma and South Vineyard streets across the street from Central Middle School.
The original plan was to turn the commercial space into meeting areas, a youth drop-in center and kitchen to teach young Hawaiian adults life skills, beginning sometime next year. At the same time, the trust planned to refurbish the apartments to house 18- to 26-year-olds who might otherwise end up homeless.
But with the COVID-19 crisis, the timetable was expedited and the first of 42 residents were accepted in June at Lydia’s House, which refers to the beloved monarch’s given name, Lydia Lili‘u Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamaka‘eha.
Clients pay program fees of $200 per month for a one-bedroom apartment and $400 for a two-bedroom unit, which includes utilities, parking, programs and classes.
There are sessions on parenting, financial planning, couples therapy, social service case management “and a strong sense of Hawaiian culture,” Carvalho said during an interview in one of the former bail bondsman’s offices. “What does it mean to be a kane, to be a wahine? What are your roles and responsibilities? What does it mean to be Hawaiian in the modern age?”
Every one of the 18 apartments houses someone who has gone through the foster care system and many others who have been in the juvenile justice system, homeless, suffered gang or domestic violence and generally grew up in dysfunctional surroundings, Carvalho said.
“There’s been a significant amount of trauma, grief and loss,” he said. “Once they no longer have to worry about housing, then all of these other issues start coming out.”
Native Hawaiian children comprise about 31% of all children in Hawaii. Yet in 2018 they represented 46% of all children in foster care, according to the Lili‘uokalani Trust. Native Hawaiians also are consistently over- represented in the annual Point in Time Count homeless census.
“We expect trends to increase due to the negative impacts of COVID-19 and the economic downturn,” Dawn Harflinger, trust executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “As a perpetual trust operating during the global pandemic, we continue to focus assets on serving our most vulnerable and destitute Hawaiian children, as mandated by Queen Lili‘uokalani, while being fiscally prudent to ensure we continue to serve our people for decades to come.”
Tre Thomas, 20, and his girlfriend, Bonita Furtado, 23, were among the first clients to move into Lydia’s House.
They had separately been homeless as children and met in a North Shore foster care program and have struggled to stay together as a couple for the last six years, moving from one dysfunctional housing situation to the next.
“I didn’t even know my parents,” Thomas said. And growing up, his siblings and cousins would steal from him to make money.
“I didn’t get much nice things, but they would steal my nice clothes and sell stuff like my nice Army jacket,” Thomas said.
Furtado, the oldest of four, said she basically raised her siblings since she was 8 years old because her mother was busy “partying.” Furtado hasn’t seen her mother in years and believes she’s living in Las Vegas.
If it weren’t for their new apartment through the Lili‘uokalani Trust, Thomas and Furtado said they would be homeless by now. Even though they both work security jobs, they didn’t have proper identification to get an apartment on their own and the price of rent on Oahu was beyond their means.
Their one-bedroom apartment represents the first time they’ve had a home of their own, the first time they signed a lease and the first time they’ve lived together without roommates. They’ve even saved enough to buy a used car.
When they toured their new home, they learned that the furnishings and art were donated — and decorated by — Hawaiian musician Raiatea Helm and her husband, one of 13 individuals and groups that furnished all 18 apartments.
After only three months, Furtado said the housing and programs have given them both new-found confidence and security, made them a stronger couple and given them motivation for the next phase of their lives.
“It’s life-changing for us,” Furtado said. “We don’t have to look over our shoulders all the time. It’s definitely motivated us to do better.”
And Thomas said he’s also appreciated the focus on Hawaiian culture.
“It feels good,” he said. “I like learning things about myself.”
Thomas was studying to be a diesel mechanic at Honolulu Community College but dropped out after the first year. Furtado hopes to become a nurse or a social worker some day to help others like herself who never had a strong family or even a childhood.
Now the Lili‘uokalani Trust is planning to take on the complex issue of housing Native Hawaiian youngsters.
It’s partnering with Hale Kipa, a nonprofit organization that operates two shelters on Oahu for children under age 18. Over the last 50 years, Hale Kipa has learned how to navigate the legal and liability issues helping “more complicated, difficult populations,” said Punky Pletan-Cross, Hale Kipa’s CEO.
Hale Kipa houses both children and young adults who have been sexually trafficked, abused, have little education and who otherwise would have few opportunities to succeed.
“They don’t have the toolkit to be successful but we help them get living-wage jobs,” Pletan-Cross said. “The common underlying dynamic is trauma.”
He called Hale Kipa’s relationship with the Lili‘uokalani Trust “a remarkably unusual partnership.”
They are now teaming up to better equip a young population that would otherwise be handicapped.
“That’s what we have in common,” Pletan-Cross said.