Tackling the ‘everyday struggle’ of homeless in Hawaii

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Hawaii Pacific University says Hawaii has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation.

It’s the focus of a week-long series of events at HPU as advocates discuss what to do about the problem.

“Los Angeles Times” journalist Steve Lopez is in Hawaii to speak with homeless advocates. His award-winning book, “The Soloist,” which recounts his experiences with a Julliard-trained musician who became homeless in L.A., was turned into a feature film in 2009 starring actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx.

Lopez said he was surprised at the number of homeless people in Hawaii and said the number-one question he gets asked has to do with homeless beggars.

“I always get asked, ‘I keep seeing this guy on the street. He wants a quarter. He wants a dollar. Should I give it to him?’ I say no. If someone is suffering, your dollar is not going to change this person’s life. Save up your dollars and find an agency or non-profit that serves up good work in reaching out,” he said.

Lopez says the lack of affordable housing is one of the big contributors to homelessness.

Deja-Lynn Rombawaquarles used to live in Kaneohe. Unable to afford rent or find a job, she now calls the Kakaako sidewalks her home.

“It’s very difficult. It’s an everyday struggle and battle,” she said. “The ultimate goal is to get a job and my husband and I off the streets.”

The Institute for Human Services works with families like Rombawaquarles, who are striving to get off the streets.

“We all have this stereotype of what homelessness is,” said community relations manager Kimo Carvalho. “A guy on the side of the street, living with a shopping cart, who is mentally ill. In reality, that’s only a third of the homeless population.”

IHS says a growing number of local families is seeking shelter. The agency houses up to 50 families in its family shelter dorm.

“They experience homelessness where minimum wage was not conducive enough to support a lifestyle. Mom and Dad working full time here, and they cannot afford a home,” said Carvalho.

IHS’ goal is to give these families enough resources to get them back on their feet. It offers classes to help families build financial savings and works on qualifying clients for subsidy programs to get them housed. A rooftop garden teaches them self-sufficiency and responsibility.

IHS says the average length of stay for families in city shelters is 196 days. At IHS, it’s 97 days.

But once the families leave the shelter, they are left with little-to-no belongings. IHS says many aren’t fully equipped to get back on their feet.

The agency recently started a thrift shop that clients can shop from, and anyone can donate items directly to the agency.

“It establishes a sense of hope in a world where they’re losing personal things and they reclaim something that’s theirs once again,” Carvalho said.

In the meantime, Rombawaquarles is actively searching for a job and is grateful her family can get help.

Her family is thinking of joining a shelter.

“We go to Starbucks. We use my husband’s phone to catch Wi-Fi to apply online for jobs. Everything nowadays is technology,” Rombawaquarles said. “A lot of us have made bad decisions, but no one is perfect. We’re all human. We all make mistakes.”

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