Door opens on a brighter future
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
MA'ILI — Quinten Cuesta stood on the threshold between his old life and a life of possibilities, the keys to his family's future literally pinched between his fingers. His hand shook.
Seven months ago, Cuesta and his wife and two children found themselves homeless, scared and living on Tracks Beach in Nanakuli. The couple had steady jobs — they still do — but their monthly rent had soared from $750 to $1,050 in less than a year, more than they could afford.
Yesterday, they became homeowners for the first time, thanks to help from the Consuelo Foundation and the Ma'ili Land Transitional Housing Program, run by Catholic Charities Hawai'i.
"Oh ... oh ... oh!" said Cuesta as a dozen people, including new neighbors he met five minutes earlier, watched him unlock the front door. "Oh, there we go!"
The agencies that helped the family say the Cuestas are the face of Hawai'i's working poor: They are too strapped by monthly expenses to afford a mortgage but they earn too much to qualify for government assistance.
And advocates for the homeless, while lacking statistics for the working poor, said their ranks have been growing in the past two years, according to the Rev. Bob Nakata, pastor of Kahalu'u United Methodist Church and a member of Solidarity with the Homeless.
The homeless used to consist mainly of people with substance abuse and mental health problems, he said. Not any more.
"The more recent homeless are the working poor who cannot afford things," Nakata said. "They are dropping out of the rental market. It is not uncommon to hear stories of rents going up several hundred dollars a month."
Most troubling of all: They are families with children to feed and keep in school.
When the Cuestas moved out of their rental unit in Makaha last April, staying briefly with a relative before heading to the beach, they were weighing gut-wrenching decisions each month.
"For me it was a choice of: 'Am I going to pay my rent or go buy food or pay my utilities?' " said Cuesta, 42, a maintenance worker at the University of Hawai'i.
In July, they were accepted into Ma'ili Land, a 44-unit housing facility that helps families find jobs and housing while teaching them skills that help them take control of their lives.
But even as they dreamed of improving their life, they never imagined that would include owning their own home. And yesterday was so special, Quinten Cuesta kept his 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son out of school so they could savor the occasion.
"There are so many of us that need an affordable place to live," he said. "I am one of the few grateful and lucky ones that I am allowed this. I thank God and pray to him to help the other people because there are so many people who need help. There are a lot on the beach."
Their new home is part of the Consuelo Foundation's 75-home subdivision, Ke Aka Ho'ona, in Wai'anae. The homes were built with the help of their owners in the mid-1990s as part of a self-help project.
They rarely change hands, however, and the Cuestas got lucky. They consider the home a miracle.
After the previous owners moved out, the foundation offered them the home for $77,000 and no down payment. Their monthly mortgage is about $500 with a lease payment of about $30.
At the end of a street lined with well-kept homes, Cuesta's three-bedroom, two-bathroom home would be the envy of many. It has an open, airy feel with a high ceiling, clean, white walls and a small yard outside.
"From where we came from, I cannot believe we are owning our own home," said Shannon Cuesta, who works as a tutor at Makaha Elementary during the week and at the Nanakuli McDonald's on weekends. "This is unbelievable. I owe it all to the Lord. I'm overwhelmed."
But before they could qualify for the home, the Cuestas had to change some spending habits and clear old ledgers, said Helen Wai, the financial coach who worked with them for months.
They had numerous debts, an old unpaid student loan, back child support and five years of unfiled tax returns to deal with, Wai said.
"We needed them to understand it was not just getting in the house, it was staying in the house," Wai said. "They needed to understand the responsibility of home ownership."
When he walked into his home for the first time yesterday, the white carpet soft beneath his bare feet, Quinten Cuesta looked around and his eyes began to tear. He tried to say something to his wife, but the words were choked with emotion.
Then he gave her a tight hug.
"I think we're going to be OK over here," he said.
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.