Finding their way home
|||Hawaii makes progress to rescue homeless|
By Will Hoover
By Will Hoover
From the moment homelessness on the Wai'anae Coast became a headline-grabbing issue in the summer of 2006, one of the more startling and troubling aspects was the sight of entire families huddled together under plastic tarps, tents and makeshift, dirt-floor abodes from Nanakuli to Makaha.
By then it had become clear that the state had a crisis. To deal with it, Gov. Linda Lingle signed an emergency proclamation allowing the state to fast-track the opening of two homeless shelters — the first in Kalaeloa in October 2006, and the second in Wai'anae in March 2007. Families that previously had few options were ushered off the beaches and into these temporary shelters that had programs designed to help folks assimilate into the everyday world.
Since then the lives of those involved have altered in ways both anticipated and unexpected. For some, the results have seemed miraculous. For others, the changes have presented new anxieties.
SURVIVING HARD TIMES
Caught in this drama were two exceptionally large families: Bert and Roxanne Bustamante and their 10 children, who had occupied Nanakuli Beach Park, and Jeremiah Lopez and Caroline Soaladaob and their nine kids, who had lived at Kea'au Beach Park.
Both families moved into the Onelau'ena emergency transitional shelter at Kalaeloa and later moved to Ohana Ola O Kahumana, a community outreach program on Lualualei Homestead Road that offers transitional housing for homeless adults with minor children.
But getting there wasn't easy. Lopez, who now admits to being a drug addict and alcoholic, was uncomfortable with the structured life at Onelau'ena and soon walked away from his family to return to the beach.
Weeks later, on Dec. 16, 2006, realizing he had hit bottom, Lopez visited his family at an outdoor shelter Christmas celebration, and something clicked. Lopez hasn't had a drink or touched drugs since. He's gone through treatment, and for the first time in 15 years he has a full-time job — as operations maintenance manager at Onelau'ena.
"It ain't easy," said Lopez. "But it's rewarding. I've never been this happy. If it wasn't for being on the beach I wouldn't be here today. It was a gift from God."
Caroline Soaladaob, who is now a full-time housing manager for Wai'anae Community Outreach program, which operates Onelau'ena, is joyous about the family's prospects. But she conceded it's still a struggle.
"The hard times — that's what makes us stronger," she said.
The Bustamantes know that only too well. After months of living under the stars, they're grateful each day for being in a safe environment with a roof over their heads. The kids are doing well, said Roxanne, and so is Bert, following a bout with pneumonia that put him in a hospital for weeks and cost him his hotel job.
But Roxanne, whose full-time job with Pizza Hut pays $9 an hour, said the stress of keeping a home equals that of living homeless on the beach. In late October the couple received a termination notice on their $800-a-month, three-bedroom unit. They've got until mid-November to come up with $4,000 in back payments.
The day after the couple got the notice, Roxanne said she had secured half the money by borrowing from her workplace 401(k) account. But she had no idea where the rest would come from. Meanwhile, Bert was having little luck finding another job.
"For us it's still about survival," said Roxanne. "But I know that as long as we've got our family, we're going to make out."
REALIZING A PURPOSE
For Alice Greenwood — who became homeless for the first time at age 60 in July 2006 — the experience has been "a blessing in disguise." After losing the home she had rented for 30 years, Greenwood headed to Ma'ili Beach with a pup tent and her 6-year-old adopted grandson, Makalii.
Confused and frightened at first, Greenwood soon took on the role of advocate for her fellow beach dwellers, lobbying state and city officials on their behalf, speaking out at community gatherings and researching the legal rights of those who can't afford a place to live.
"It's given me a purpose," said Greenwood, who now lives at the state shelter in Wai'anae known as Pai'olu Kaiaulu, where Makalii has more friends his age, and where she recently organized a residents action council. "I feel like I have a calling for this."
Greenwood admitted that before she lost her own place, she was among those who looked askance at homeless individuals.
"I used to wonder what was the matter with them — why can't they be responsible and make something of themselves?" she said. "Then I found out what it's like."
Rose Cunningham learned the hard way what homelessness is like.
"I didn't want to follow rules," she said. "I lost my three sons to Child Protective Services. My mom got custody. I did drugs. I didn't know how to get my life back in order."
Broke, angry and ill, she ended up pregnant and living at Ma'ili Beach Park with her boyfriend, who was wanted for parole violation. She credited him for giving himself up to force her to turn her own life around.
Cunningham, 35, gave up drugs cold turkey, walked away from the beach and entered Pai'olu Kaiaulu in April of this year, "one week and one day clean."
She hasn't looked back since. Following rules turned out to be easier than she figured.
"Plus, I was having a baby. And I wanted to get myself clean. I wanted one different life. I needed my family to begin to trust me again. I needed my kids back in my life. I wanted to keep my daughter."
Cunningham gave birth Aug. 8 to a girl, Lexzani-Lee. A month later, the two left the emergency shelter and moved into a studio unit at Maililand Transitional Shelter. She attends the shelter's programs. She visits her mom and sons daily. She's able to laugh again.
"It's all about you wanting to change," she said. "Life is about struggles. But, this is good struggles. What's next? Getting a job. And then getting my own place."
'A TURNING POINT'
Kaleuati Kaleuati and his wife, Olive, arrived from American Samoa in October 2004 with five children and high hopes for a better life.
Within weeks the family was homeless and living in a car wherever they found a place to park. Desperate, Olive boarded a bus one day and asked the driver "Where do I go for welfare?" Eventually, in 2005 she was able to move her family into Ohana Ola O Kahumana.
But by that time the family was unraveling. Kaleuati Kaleuati had gravitated toward the wrong element and became addicted to drugs, said his wife. He became verbally abusive for the first time and ultimately was told to leave the shelter.
Earlier this year, with the two-year limit at Ohana Ola coming to an end, no job prospects in sight, and facing homelessness once more, Olive, 36, reluctantly went to the Pai'olu Kaiaulu emergency homeless shelter and signed in.
"It was a very difficult thing to do," she said, recalling the moment as a low point in her life. "I thought, 'It's moving in the wrong direction.' "
Now, she sees it as "a turning point" in the family's better fortunes. Her husband — drug free and his old self again — has rejoined his wife and family.
Olive recently completed a job-training program and is confident she'll return to school and one day be working as an interpreter. (She speaks fluent Samoan and English.)
"This is a first step," she said. "It's an awakening for better things in our life."
Reach Will Hoover at firstname.lastname@example.org.