Giving shelter to homeless
• Photo gallery: Nonprofit helps shelter homeless
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
Carolina Jesus says she's got a calling to offer hope — and shelter — to people who haven't had either in a long while.
The 51-year-old director of a small, faith-based nonprofit is trying to reach out to as many chronically homeless people in Honolulu city parks as she can, offering them low-cost shelter (when there's space) in four homes that she owns, signing them up for housing waiting lists or linking them up with other programs, from substance abuse treatment to mental health assistance.
The model is being applauded by others, who say it serves as an alternative for homeless who don't want to move into more traditional shelters at a time when it's harder for them to remain in city parks. Last week, police started to enforce a ban on shopping carts and tents in city parks, arguably the toughest measure yet aimed at opening up public areas and deterring homeless campers. In the wake of the ban, homeless shelters say they're seeing more people coming in from city parks.
Other homeless are moving to sidewalks, state parks, remote beaches or other areas.
Jesus is also getting more requests for shelter, but isn't able to meet all the demand. Her nonprofit has two homes in Kalihi for men, one in Kailua for women and a fourth in Mākaha, where a family of five is living. And now she's looking to open a fifth home.
Jesus, her married name, has about 27 people living in her homes, and has started a waiting list.
"We can rent houses from anybody that wants to help us," she said.
Jesus started her nonprofit, Shelter of Wisdom, five years ago, after opening up her home in Mākaha to a homeless family. She later purchased homes in Kalihi and Kailua with the help of an inheritance, and decided to take a drastic step: Rather than renting them out for profit, she resolved to break even and fulfill a calling to help the homeless — renting rooms to homeless people at low cost and using her savings and assistance from churches and charities to cover expenses for homeless who couldn't afford to pay.
If they are able to, homeless pay $200 to $400 a month to stay at Shelter of Wisdom, depending on what they bring in.
Jesus said many homeless work or get income from Social Security, but it's often not enough to rent a place.
If they have no income, Jesus and her volunteers bring them in and link them up with services and benefits. She and her volunteers also do intensive outreach in parks to help enroll people in programs, including for medical insurance or food stamps.
Christy MacPherson, program manager of Family Promise Hawaii, which shelters homeless families in churches and other houses of worship, said the state needs more out-of-the-box programs, like Shelter of Wisdom, to help tackle the homeless problem.
"We have to be creative. When you are bound to traditional ways it doesn't serve the whole population," MacPherson said.
Shelter of Wisdom has no employees, not even at its homes.
Instead, the homes have "peer leaders" — people who have been in the program for a while and can keep the peace.
It's a system that works well, Jesus says, especially for people who don't like the idea of following shelter rules.
Jesus said her homes are meant to stabilize people until they can move into permanent housing. So far this year, four of her clients have moved into public housing. Others have found housing on the market. Some have moved into residential care homes.
The people the shelter takes in often have a host of problems, and Jesus acknowledged that the program doesn't work for everyone.
"They have mental health issues. A lot of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol," she said. "They are typically unwell."