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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 19, 2008

Inmates help out homeless

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Homeless Package

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Halawa work-line inmates Theo Nobriga, left, and Dean Kokudun renovate a public housing unit in Puahala Homes for the homeless.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Two state agencies have combined forces in a creative trial plan aimed at easing O'ahu's homeless crisis.

Since Jan. 7, a team of work-line inmates from Halawa Correctional Facility has been working to clean up, repair and landscape 14 vacant, aging and dilapidated one-, two- and three-bedroom units at the 128-unit Puahala Homes low-income public housing project in Kalihi.

Once the work is finished, homeless families will occupy the units and the status of the units will change from public housing to transitional homeless shelters, said Chad Taniguchi, executive director of the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

The use of the inmate workers expedites the state's ability to finish the task faster and more efficiently, said Taniguchi.

Furthermore, the families will receive the same social skills and job training programs as those in the emergency and transitional shelters on the Wai'anae Coast, said Kaulana Park, state homeless solutions coordinator something that has never been tried in a low-income public housing structure before. Those programs are designed to assist the homeless in transitioning into the social mainstream.

"How this came about is that some of these units were slated for homeless families," said Louise Kim McCoy, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety. "But, unfortunately, the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority does not have the resources available to do the required repairs and clean-up."

So, when someone suggested prison work-line inmates could do the job, Public Safety director Clayton Frank gave the idea the go-ahead, said McCoy.

"Hats off to Public Safety for helping out on the cause," said Park. "It's a team effort. We continue to try to work together between departments."

Park said if the concept works, more of the state's empty and crumbling public housing units could be put to the same use.

Not everyone, however, is pleased with the plan. Some long-time Puahala Homes residents say they intend to protest the plan on Tuesday in front of the Housing Authority's headquarters at 1002 N. School St. just down the hill from the housing project.

Those protesters will include Joe and Judy DeCambra, who have lived for the past 13 years in the F-unit of Building 12. The DeCambras say they are pleased with the work being done by the inmates. And project residents understand about the plight of the homeless.

"But they can't just come in ahead of people who've been waiting for a lease," said Joe DeCambra. "That's just wrong. I waited for five years to get in here. The homeless are no better than us."

However, Park said homeless families moving into Puahala Homes will include those who have been on the public housing waiting list. He also said the additional transitional housing shelter units are meant to be temporary. The goal is for the training programs to enable the families to move into jobs and permanent affordable rental housing.

Park said there are also positive aspects to be gained through the bond between work-line inmates, low-income residents and homeless families coming together to improve public housing facilities. Many of those involved come from similar backgrounds.

Inmate Brian Miguel, 45, is one example.

"I lived here at Puahala with my grandparents when I was 12," said Miguel, as he stood in the completely refurbished three-bedroom apartment in which he had once resided with his late grandparents, Joseph and Judy Miguel.

Miguel, who is serving four years for parole violation, admitted to feeling a special satisfaction in helping do the work that restored the unit that he described as a "complete mess" only two weeks ago.

"I feel good about being able to give back in this way to the community, and to be able to help the homeless who will be living here," he said. "People say if you grow up in public housing you're going to end up bad. But my grandparents raised 14 children right here in this unit, and every one of them turned out to be successful.

"We all make decisions in life. I made some wrong ones. But, I feel good about myself right now."

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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