There’s no cheaper daily rate in all of Hawaii: $2 a night for a bed in oceanfront property.

There’s running water, soda machines, a library, a playroom for the kids; a microwave, toaster and coffee machine; a basketball hoop and a smoking section out back.

Free toiletries, too, and a fridge to store medications. There’s even a secure area to store precious belongings.

But here’s the rub: The roof leaks, birds fly freely about, you can’t drink or do illegal drugs, and curfew is at 10 p.m. Make a violent scene and you’ll be kicked out.

And one other thing — your sleeping space is a 4-foot-by-6-foot cubicle, and you are sharing a warehouse with 200 other people.

Welcome to the Next Step Project homeless shelter in Kakaako.

Established six years ago as an emergency fix to a permanent challenge, the state-funded shelter was only supposed to operate for one year.

Today, Next Step often makes the news, as it did this week when some residents complained about conditions at the shelter. The complaints ranged from lack of hot water to staff bullying.

A tour of Next Step, however, suggests a staff of 19 making the best they can of a difficult situation. At least that’s how it appeared to me.

The facilities are clean, orderly and at capacity. Most residents, I was told, are happy to live there rather than at another shelter or on the street.

“This is not an easy place to live in or work in,” said shelter manager Jason Espero. “But there are rules that everyone has to follow. The goal is to get people into transitional and permanent housing.”

“Our staff does an amazing job,” said Darlene Hein, Espero’s boss. “Could it be better? Yes. But the issue is not the shelter. The issue is society and providing services. There are a lot of mentally ill people here, some severe. We’re doing the best we can.”

Kalua Pork, Mac Salad

Hein was at the shelter the day it was opened by then Gov. Linda Lingle. As the political reporter for Hawaii Public Radio, I was there, too.

My recollection is that there wasn’t much more at Next Step back then than beds and cubicles, and that not every bed was full.

Today, there are about 200 people using the facility: 70 single males, 25 single females, 15 couples and 20 families with three or more members. The warehouse is segregated by those categories, with singles and couples provided the smaller cubicles and families given ones that are 6 feet by 8 feet.

The cubicles are covered by sheets in the day while residents are away. They must leave the shelter by 8:30 a.m.

It’s just as well; there is no air conditioning at Next Step, except for the trailer that serves as an office.

The doors are opened at night to allow in the trades. Return time for most residents begins at 5:30 p.m., when most come to enjoy the free meal served an hour later.

“It’s good food,” said Espero, especially when eateries like Keneke’s in Waimanalo bring in prime rib, Kalua pig, macaroni salad and rice.

Next Step is not free: Each resident pays $60 a month in program fees.

The warehouse space was provided by the Hawaii Community Development Authority, a state agency. Just this year, ownership of the parcel the warehouse sits on was transferred to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as part of a settlement over past-due ceded-land revenues owed by the state to OHA.

In addition to food donations, individuals and organizations such as church groups bring in linen, diapers, dry goods and the like. The shelter has a service center where residents can exchange points for items like toothpaste, DVDs and sanitary napkins.

Residents, who are allowed to remain in the shelter for up to two years, can have two electrical devices, which can include TV sets with screens no larger than 13 inches, 20 inches for flat screens. Earphones or headphones are encouraged.

Hein declined to provide Civil Beat with the list or rules and regulations governing Next Step — the ones that have some residents upset — but they include keeping out of other people’s cubicles. A fenced-in area with a padlock holds valuable items.

The Waikiki Health Center took over the Next Step contract just a year ago. Hein, 57, has been an advocate for the homeless for decades. Espero, 27, is a political science graduate from UH Manoa who wants to help people in need.

Espero has been the target of residents like David Cannell, who has made strongs allegations of bad management.

“I do understand that are going through a lot,” said Espero, who saw the ad for the shelter job on Craigslist. “I try not to take it personally.”

Stuffed Animals, Medical Help

Cannell warned me Tuesday that Next Step managers would only present the best side of the shelter to reporters. If that’s the case, however, they did it pretty quickly, as I visited Wednesday.

The shelter had the feeling of a lived-in space that was cared for not only by staff but by residents. As the slideshow at the end of this article shows, you’ll see children’s stuffed animals — a heartbreaking sight.

The staff includes maintenance crews and one full-time clinical social worker. Once a week, students, interns and staff at the John A. Burns School of Medicine next door provide medical assistance. If someone is seriously ill or injured, Next Step will get them a taxi to an emergency room or call an ambulance.

As for Espero, he hardly seems the monster that Cannell describes. The son of state Sen. Will Espero, Jason Espero clearly takes pride in his work, and he and Hein are a team — albeit, one with Hein as the dominant partner. She does most of the talking with reporters.

Hein expressed frustration at the negative press Next Step has received, though there are some 40 emergency shelter and transitional housing listings on Oahu.

While the shelter still faces problems — the roof being at the top of the list — Hein provided a list of process and service improvements (e.g., a gardening club, job training expansion, a suggestions box) and a “done list” (e.g., new toilet seats installed as needed). The lists are produced below.

“I think most residents appreciate being here,” she said. “A majority say they would rather be here than at (the Institute for Human Services) or on the streets. But I won’t pretend things are perfect.”

Espero said Next Step has succeeded in placing 90 percent of its resident families into housing, though they have had much less success for single males.

Hein and Espero said they expect the shelter to continue to operate, and Hein reiterated her point that the real problem with homelessness lies with society and not shelters.

“It’s not OK for society to do this,” she said, referring to the existence of homeless people. “If you want to fire someone, fire me.”

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author

Comments