'Soft approach' saving homeless
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By James Gonser
For 10 years, Safe Haven has helped some of O'ahu's mentally ill homeless people rebuild their lives by not telling them what to do.
The shelter doesn't tell them they have to take their medication, or attend mandatory counseling sessions or stop using drugs or alcohol.
What Safe Haven workers do is listen, and take the time to build trust with people who have serious mental and substance abuse problems who are chronically homeless.
These people often are the most visible of those on the streets — loudly talking to themselves, living outside public bathrooms and bus stops or wandering the streets pushing shopping carts filled with garbage.
Advocates say they are extremely difficult to help because typically they don't seek or often won't accept professional help.
"Safe Haven is an example of how you can take those folks that are on the street and they can be saved," said Joanne Lundstrom, chief executive officer of Mental Health Kokua, the nonprofit agency that runs Safe Haven. "They can begin to change their behaviors and live more independently. It works."
John Perkins has his own room on the shelter's third floor.
For Perkins, 52, that is a big deal. His last address was the downtown sidewalk along Kuakini Street.
"Over here is the sink," said Perkins, who is proud to show off his amenities, including a window and a desk where he likes to draw.
The soft-spoken Perkins frequently changes the subject in the middle of a conversation. But he draws intricate pictures, mixing Buddhist symbols and political leaders such as former President Bill Clinton.
Perkins moved into his room six months ago, and in a year he would like to be in a home of his own. "We'll see," he said. "I'm working on it."
Safe Haven, a 24-hour residential facility, offers Perkins and others something they want with no strings attached: a meal, a shower, a place to sleep.
Once trust is established, the shelter provides medical and psychiatric care, case management and social rehabilitation services.
The program celebrates a decade of work this week with an open house at its downtown shelter.
Started in 1995 with a $1.5 million federal grant and matching local money, Safe Haven is part of a national system developed to help end chronic homelessness.
Today, the shelter operates with a $1.3 million annual budget and 19 employees. In addition, Kalihi-Palama Heath Center's Health Care for the Homeless Project provides outreach to people on the streets along with psychiatric and medical care.
Safe Haven does have rules — no drugs or alcohol, and the door is locked at 9 p.m. But outside of the shelter, the clients are on their own, Lundstrom said.
"They may be drinking and doing drugs, but they cannot do it in Safe Haven," she said. "We discourage them from doing that but don't bar them from getting help if they are."
There are an estimated 6,000 homeless people in Hawai'i on any given day. Safe Haven estimates that at least one-third, or about 2,000, are chronically homeless. Mentally ill homeless are vulnerable, disoriented and fearful. Many are victims of robbery, rape or attack and are overwhelmed by traditional programs, Lundstrom said.
They live in miserable conditions, sometimes not even knowing they are ill.
SPACE THAT FEELS SAFE
Inside Safe Haven is a calm atmosphere with soothing color schemes and friendly faces. The offices are in the basement. A reception area, kitchen, activity center and medical offices are on the ground floor. Apartments are on the upper floors.
The building is leased from Homeless Solutions, a nonprofit operation that previously had a homeless shelter at the site.
Only 25 can live there, but anyone diagnosed with a mental illness who is at least 18 years old and homeless can make use of the place for free meals, showers, laundry, storing items in a secure locker, getting mail and using the phone.
"The uniqueness of Safe Haven is the soft approach," Lundstrom said. "Other group homes and residential programs have clearly defined expectations coming in. You need to participate."
In 10 years, Lundstrom said, about 80 percent of Safe Haven's residents — about 180 people — have found more permanent housing and are no longer homeless.
Among the success stories is Sesa Toelupe, 45, who five years ago was living in public parks. Today she lives in a group home in Waipahu and works at the Lanakila Rehabilitation Center.
"I was so insecure," she said. "Just being out there with all those people in the park. People taking drugs. It scared me. You don't know what is out there."
She said Safe Haven gave her a place to live for three years, the treatment she needed and the confidence to start a new life.
TAKING IN THE TOUGHEST
Ten years ago, the facility opened amid controversy over its location and how a facility for mentally ill homeless people would affect the neighborhood.
Lynne Matusow, chairwoman of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said at the time there was a push to locate the shelter at the old fire station on South Street, away from downtown. But because many of the chronic homeless live in downtown and Chinatown areas, the neighborhood board supported its placement in the Edwin Thomas Home on Beretania Street near Fort Street Mall.
"We wanted it to be right here in the community," Matusow said. "We said it needed to be right where the problem is."
Rachel Chen, co-owner of the Flower Fair, on Fort Street Mall just around the corner from Safe Haven, said the facility's clients sometimes come in and behave strangely, but will leave if asked.
"Mostly they leave us alone," Chen said. "Safe Haven is serving the community. The homeless are here. They are not going somewhere else."
Laura E. Thielen, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit group that works with Safe Haven, said the program is the only one in Hawai'i that's tailored to get people who are both mentally ill and chronically homeless off the streets.
"Safe Haven takes in some of the hardest to serve individuals," Thielen said. "If those people were still out on the streets, they would be hurting themselves or being victimized. I think Safe Haven is contributing to decreasing the morbidity rate amongst people who are severely mentally ill."
Reach James Gonser at email@example.com.
Correction: The homeless shelter Safe Haven is downtown. Its location was incorrect in a photo caption in a previous version of this story.