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Nonprofits Take on Maui’s Homeless Challenge

“Seventy-five percent of the people we refer need mental health services… ”

April 11, 2013
Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez , The Maui Weekly

Last night, you may have driven home from work, enjoyed a nice dinner, maybe read to the kids, took the dog for a walk and then took a hot shower before a little TV and slipping into a comfortable bed.

Count your blessings.

According to Robert Collesano, executive director of Mental Health America of Hawai'i's Maui office (MHA Maui), there are between 1,700 to 2,000 homeless people living on Maui. This total does not include those staying with a friend or a family member because they cannot afford to pay for rent or a mortgage.

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Homelessness remains an unresolved issue on Maui, which can lead to the mistaken conclusion that many homeless people are homeless by choice.

To learn more, and to explore collaborative solutions to the problem of homelessness, Collesano joined a panel that included Family Life Center, Catholic Charities, Mental Health Kokua and the Maui office of Veteran's Affairs for a panel presentation from the Homeless Coalition entitled, "The Ground Floor of Services for the Unsheltered on Maui."

The panel was held on Tuesday, March 19, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Maui Economic Opportunity in Wailuku.

Homelessness remains an unresolved issue on Maui, which can lead to the mistaken conclusion that many homeless people are homeless by choice.

Myrna Andrews, 53, a client of Mental Health Kokua, puts a different face on the homeless stereotype that we may unknowingly carry with us.

"I was raised in a dysfunctional family, but it was the way things were and it seemed normal," she said. "By the time I was 35 years old, my kids' father and I separated. I finally got my high school diploma after 37 years, and now I am in college. For 37 years, I believed I couldn't do anything, and now I know I can."

Mental Health Kokua, which began in 1973, has grown from a single program providing mental health services on O'ahu to an agency with programs throughout the state.

Panelist Maud Cummings, director of Family Life Center, believes that Maui will solve its homeless problem. To that end, Family Life Center is working to build the capacity in our community to address the needs of anyone who is not sheltered.

Family Life Center has 50 emergency shelter beds for men, women and children.

"But," said Cummings, "emergency shelter means in at night and out in the morning. Our goal is to move people into housing, and we have funding from the state and the county to help with deposits and rental assistance."

Cummings works every day to find affordable rentals for those she serves, but there are challenges. "Seventy-five percent of the people we refer need mental health services, and some are self-medicating," she told the audience at Tuesday's meeting.

According to the National Survey on Household Drug Use conducted in 2002 by the National Institutes of Health, self-medicating usually means abuse of alcohol and drugs--both legal and illegal. This conclusion is not meant to point blame, but to recognize that when people are in pain, they will do what is necessary to end that pain if they are not able to receive competent medical treatment, counseling and psychological assistance.

Catholic Charities client Michael Irvine is an example of what can happen with self-medication, but also tells the story of the road back to a full life.

"Back in 2008, I pulled my ACL at a job, injuring my knee," Irvine said. "I was denied liability. I was 22 years old and I did not know how to deal with the situation. I became a drug addict--big-time--in and out of jail and ending up homeless.

"I was young and I didn't understand what was going on," he continued. "I was standing outside of stores, begging for money, picking up cigarette butts off the street. I went to jail and tore my knee again.

"I went into a shelter, but I had a conflict with school classes," Irvine said. "I was going to be thrown out of the shelter and then, luckily, I found a 'clean and sober house.' Catholic Charities helped me move into this house. If it wasn't for them, I don't know where I would be today.

"Today, I have been 19 months without a drink and 19 days without a cigarette."

Homelessness is even more difficult to accept when it happens to our veterans. The National Alliance to End Homelessness recently reported on its Website that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) 2012 Annual Homeless Assessment Report included an estimate of 62,619 veterans as homeless on a single night in 2012.

In 2010, HUD reported that in Hawai'i, for every 10,000 veterans, 36 were homeless out of a total veteran population of 117,301.

Working with homeless veterans is the job of people like Julie Paltry and Anna Napoleon at the Maui Veterans Clinic in Wailuku. Paltry is a mental health social worker and Napoleon is a primary care social worker. Among the programs they run is the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) project.

HUD-VASH is a partnership between HUD and the VA that seeks to provide HUD-subsidized housing vouchers through the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority (HPHA) and intensive case management to eligible veterans who are homeless.

For more information, call (808) 433-7873 and ask for a HUD-VASH case manager. The Maui VA clinic is located at 203 Ho'ohana St. in Wailuku.

According to Paltry, "The VA has put a lot of resources into the homeless program." She has her fingers crossed that the VA office will get a social worker who specializes in homelessness.

MHA Maui will host similar community information programs each month throughout the year.

On Tuesday, April 16, the topic will be "Immigration Services on Maui" and on Tuesday, May 21, the topic will be "Issues of Diversity."

All programs are held at the J. Walter Cameron Center auditorium, 95 Mahalani St. in Wailuku, from noon to 1:30 p.m. For more information, call (808) 242-6461 or email



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