Crystal Lewis, a Coast Guard veteran and mother of three, was the first client at Hawaii’s newest homeless shelter, a remodeled warehouse in urban Honolulu that provides 24-hour shelter for families while working with them to find long-term housing within 90 days.
In Hawaii, where homelessness is so widespread, the governor declared it a state of emergency in October 2015. Officials are adopting the federally touted housing-first approach: Get people into a house and alleviate the many pressures of the street so they can effectively deal with the troubles that lost them housing in the first place.
The Family Assessment Center caters to that new approach, Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said. Officials even refer to the operation as a navigation center, not a shelter, because it’s meant foremost to be a bridge between the street and a house. Staff at the center work to obtain necessary documents, provide translation, educate landlords and overcome any other barriers stopping an individual from securing housing.
“The goal isn’t really just bringing people off the street temporarily, it’s really looking at how do you end their situation of homelessness permanently,” Morishige said.
Lewis moved to Hawaii four months ago and was staying in housing on a military base before her savings quickly ran out, and in mid-September, she and her three daughters became homeless. They spent a few weeks in a shelter on Oahu’s west coast, and Lewis searched for help but didn’t find any facilities that would meet her and her daughter’s needs beyond a roof over their heads.
“There’s a lot of gaps,” she said.
Then an outreach provider connected Lewis with the Family Assessment Center. In just over a week there, center staff secured placement for her 10-year-old daughter in a school, something Lewis struggled with before because she doesn’t have any of her daughters’ birth certificates.
Lewis said the workers have spent lots of time with her and are bringing service providers to the center for meetings so she doesn’t have to take the bus across Honolulu to meet appointments.
“It makes you feel like people are actually trying to help, instead of shuttling you through the system,” Lewis said.
The center opened on Sept. 28, and just ten days later, it housed eight families, nearing the building’s capacity for 12 families or 50 people.
Tan metal on the outside, the center is bright and open on the inside. Walls about four feet high, white and trimmed with orange, partition the living spaces for the families. Smaller spaces are meant for families of four while several larger spaces are reserved for bigger families. On one side of the warehouse, families can store their belongings in secure lockers, and just beyond that, there are bathrooms complete with showers.
Families are given air mattresses to sleep on, but the space was intentionally kept somewhat sterile so that families didn’t get too comfortable and want to stay, the center’s director, Adrian Contreras said.
Each family is assessed upon entering the center, and services like addiction counseling, child custody help and job placement are catered to the family’s needs. Many of those outside services are provided between 7.30 and 11.00 at night, in order to better meet the schedules of the center’s residents.
Because affordable housing is so competitive in Hawaii, Contreras said he’s also talking to landlords and educating them so they don’t immediately write off applicants with a patchy rental history. It’s important for landlords to understand that issues such as addiction and poor finances aren’t isolated to homeless populations, he said.
Contreras is thoroughly documenting what works and what doesn’t at the center, so it can serve as a blueprint for similar operations in the future.
“I hope we demonstrate there’s a need for this type of program,” he said.
The center is now scheduled to be open for two years before returning to its previous owners, and it’s operating as a sort-of experiment to evaluate the effectiveness of the navigation center model, Scott Morishige said. If successful, he hopes the approach can be replicated at existing shelters across Oahu.
For Lewis, the Family Assessment Center opened at a perfect time. She’s eager to get into a place of her own, and she said she’s grateful for everything the center has offered her so far.
“I’m glad I’m in on the ground floor of this program,” she said.
Alexander Deedy is a freelance journalist based in Hawaii.