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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Homeless children face unique barriers

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

James has been on the move since he first became homeless in October.

An apartment in Kane'ohe was his last real home, but there were more people living there than allowed. Since the eviction, he has lived in a car, in public parks and in a dingy room with no kitchen or bath in Waikiki.

At a glance

• The SMS Research & Marketing study, the first comprehensive count taken since 1999, shows the number of homeless statewide was up nearly 16 percent in 2003, from 12,618 five years ago.

• About 10 percent of the homeless population nationwide are children under 18, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The number is higher in Hawai'i: nearly 14 percent.

• The SMS survey was conducted between July 26 and Sept. 20 in six parts: agency surveys, expert interviews, database analysis, shelter count surveys, field work and telephone interviews. A total of 894 homeless people were interviewed at hundreds of sites on all islands.

He wants to be a lawyer, but right now he's at the Institute for Human Services shelter, doing the best he can to get by, day to day.

James is 8 years old.

A new statewide survey shows for the first time how many of Hawai'i's homeless are younger than 18: nearly 14 percent, higher than the national average, 10 percent. It also shows that the number of homeless was up nearly 16 percent in 2003, from 12,618 five years ago to 14,595, according to SMS Research & Marketing.

The lives of James and other homeless children in Hawai'i illustrate the special difficulties they face.

More than 60 homeless children live at the IHS shelter, and they need extra understanding and help because they played no part in becoming homeless, said IHS executive director Lynn Maunakea.

"They are going through an awful lot," she said.

Children must be enrolled in school, and more than 90 percent of the state's homeless children are, said Judy Tonda, the state Department of Education's homeless liaison. But they struggle.

"When you are homeless and, say, living on the beach, it is hard to get to school," Maunakea said. "Transportation, getting up, getting cleaned up and at school on time is an extra challenge. Sometimes school doesn't happen as regularly. There are frequent absences."

James shares a space at IHS with his 4-year-old brother, his pregnant mother and her boyfriend.

Like many homeless people, James' family did not want their full names used because of the stigma attached to being homeless.

James has changed schools four times since October, and every move pushes him further behind his third-grade class. Studies show that every move brings a four- to six-month lag in a child's education, Tonda said.

But James loves school. He said his favorite subjects are math and language arts. But what he wants most, he said, is a home.

"I want TV and a bed. And a dog. Not a cat, just a dog."

To make sure James doesn't fall farther behind, his mother or her boyfriend takes the bus with him to school every day.

The DOE's homeless liaison office operates under a $70,000 federal grant. That pays Tonda's salary, provides school supplies for homeless children and several part-time tutors at shelters and outreach programs.

"The program is basically to ensure that homeless kids are enrolled in school," Tonda said. "They have a right to continue at their home school ... for as long as they are homeless."

Seven shelters on O'ahu give homeless families a temporary place to live, said Tonda, as well as extra incentive to send their children to school: It is part of the agreement to live there.

Homeless children in rural areas, runaways or abandoned children can fall through the social service safety net. Some turn to drugs or crime to survive. Still others piece together a free meal here, a handout there to get by.

Bleach, 18, started living on the streets four years ago because she could not get along with her mother. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade and has survived by panhandling and staying within the protective circle of other teens on the streets of Waikiki.

"The things I missed were the comforts of home," Bleach said. "Being able to sleep and not worry about when the cops are going to come. If it is going to rain. Watching TV. I miss that so much."

She and many other teens regularly visit Hale Kipa Youth Services Project YO! — a program that serves homeless youth in Waikiki and urban Honolulu. There they can get a meal three days a week, take a hot shower and wash their clothes.

Bleach draws and paints daily and says she has given up on formal education because of the time she has missed. But she has not given up on life, and sees art as a possible career.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.