Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, October 6, 2003

Rise in homeless women pushes shelter to limit

By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Institute for Human Services women's shelter has enough floor space and sleeping mats for 60 homeless women. But nearly every night, 65 to 70 women come to the door, seeking a safe place to sleep.

When too many women show up, someone has to go, said Lynn Maunakea. "It is awful."

Advertiser library photo

"There is not enough room to keep all of them," said Lynn Maunakea, executive director of IHS, the only agency on O'ahu that provides emergency shelter to the homeless. "It's difficult. We have a dinner service, and we know they're all wanting to stay ...

"So we put numbers into a hat, and we let one of them draw. ... Can you imagine?

"It is awful."

O'ahu's homeless population has continued to grow during the past year, with the number of people seeking shelter at one of the three IHS facilities increasing from 2,083 last year to 2,185 this year.

Maunakea is asking area churches to open their spare rooms to some of the women, and some religious organizations are talking with their congregations about doing that, she said.

But as the homeless population increases, temporary approaches are becoming less effective and more expensive. Permanent housing must be considered, Maunakea said, not only out of altruistic motivations, but because it could be the most cost-effective means of dealing with the problem.

Beyond risking fire code violations, crowding can be dangerous, considering the problems some homeless people suffer, for the women and for the staff, Maunakea said. When too many women show up, someone has to go.

How to help

To make donations of food or cleaning supplies to the women's, men's or family shelters, or to volunteer to serve meals, contact the Institute for Human Services Inc. at 845-7150.

Most of the women who seek help at the women's shelter are mentally ill, Maunakea said. Some also have drug or other health problems.

The shelter takes in women of all ages, and the range on any particular night can go from young women barely out of their teens to grandmothers. When the lottery threatens to put the older women out in the elements, younger ones often volunteer to go instead, Maunakea said. She worries about them.

"They are victimized," she said. "They are easily taken advantage of. They are raped, abused, robbed — beaten up."

The crowding problem in the women's shelter and the population increases in the men's and family shelters have been exacerbated as an additional 100 homeless people began to seek shelter during the past year, Maunakea said. The number of homeless children increased in the past year from 245 to 276.

At least part of the crowding has occurred as police, reacting to citizen complaints about homeless people and illegal activities in parks, began rousting people out at night, Maunakea said.

She said she expects the problem to get worse now that the City Council is considering a new law that could close more parks at night.

"We all want clean, safe, nice parks for our older citizens and visitors," Maunakea said. "But what are we going to do with the people they are driving off?"

Carol Wilkins of the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a California-based, nonprofit organization that works nationwide to create more housing options for homeless people, said other cities have successfully experimented with a concept called supportive housing.

Supportive housing, she said, targets the country's most costly homeless people — those who are chronically without permanent shelter because mental and physical health problems make it nearly impossible to hold down jobs or behave in ways expected of reliable tenants or good neighbors. Because this population also needs extensive medical care, especially in light of their homeless lifestyles, most of the resources spent on homelessness goes to them.

What the communities have done is to take a necessary step beyond housing subsidies, Wilkins said, and added teams of social workers who regularly visit the formerly homeless in their new homes.

In addition to helping their clients get medical treatment, drug counseling and psychological therapy, the support teams also help teach their clients to be good tenants and neighbors.

"They make sure the rent is paid," Wilkins said. "They make sure the utilities are paid. They may give the tenant spending money on a weekly basis, instead of handing over the whole check at the beginning of the month. They show the tenant how to maintain a healthy and happy home."

The teams also support the landlord, she said.

"In supportive housing, the landlord knows who to call at the first sign of trouble," she said. "And the teams can show them how to watch for trouble, such as behavior changes or late rent."

The teams can also go out to the neighborhood and mediate any problems that might develop between the tenant and neighbors, she said.

Some cities use supportive housing scenarios in conjunction with private housing; others lease entire buildings and create a supportive housing neighborhood with on-site managers.

Recent surveys showed that 80 percent of formerly homeless people who were placed in supportive housing remained on as successful tenants for at least a year, Wilkins said, "and these are people with mental problems who have been homeless for months or years."

A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania examined New York's supportive housing program in the mid-1990s, comparing taxpayers' costs for maintaining 5,000 mentally ill homeless people. For the first two years of the study, the subjects were homeless. In the second two years they were in a supportive housing program that included health services and job training.

The Pennsylvania researchers found that the cost of subsidized rent and supportive services equaled the cost per person the taxpayers had paid for shelters, jails and emergency rooms when the subjects were on the streets.

"It was about a wash," Wilkins said. "The costs came out about even, and supportive housing provided a much better outcome for the people involved, who were no longer sleeping in doorways — or hanging out in the parks."

Reach Karen Blakeman at 535-2430 or kblakeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.