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The loneliness Ingrid Rodrigues felt during the 11 months she spent sleeping in her car near the Honolulu Zoo was overwhelming.
After working and paying taxes in Hawaii for three decades, at age 59 she had been laid off from her job at a timeshare company. Her job search was unsuccessful, and after two years, her savings and unemployment benefits had run out.
She spent months searching for a place to live, calling affordable housing complexes and homeless shelters, to no avail. Eventually she was evicted from her Waikiki apartment and forced to live in her car. She spent each day at Ala Moana Beach Park, filling out sheet after sheet of housing applications.
The Institute for Human Services was the first homeless shelter that Rodrigues remembers calling in 2012 when she realized that she might be evicted.
According to a questionnaire Rodrigues later filed with the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, the IHS representative told her that she needed to pass an admissions test in order to stay there. The test involved being able to get on the floor and up again without assistance.
Rodrigues told the representative that would be impossible due to her severe arthritis and Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that causes vertigo. But Rodrigues says she was told she needed to be able to pass the admissions test to be admitted, even after she offered to bring a cot to sleep on.
It was the first of many rejections during the year before Rodrigues was finally forced to move out of her Waikiki apartment, her home for nearly 14 years.
Nearly a fourth of Hawaii’s homeless population is made up of people like Rodrigues who have permanent physical disabilities that limit their mobility, according to data from PHOCUSED.
But disability discrimination cases in housing are on the rise, and some homeless shelters aren’t willing or able to serve people with severe physical disabilities.
Rodrigues felt the so-called “mattress test” requirement was wrong: after calling IHS three more times in an effort to get shelter, she filled out a pre-complaint questionnaire against the shelter in December 2012 contending that the organization violated the federal Fair Housing Act, which bars shelters from denying housing on the basis of disability. The Civil Rights Commission opened an investigation in April 2013.
That was two years ago. In July, the case was finally settled. IHS agreed to add a “purpose” clause to its existing policy to emphasize that it will comply with federal laws regarding disability accommodations.
Four staff members are also required to attend training on fair housing in November.
IHS didn’t admit to violating the Fair Housing Act. And Rodrigues didn’t get anything personally out of the settlement.
Connie Mitchell, director of IHS, said the shelter used to have an informal policy of testing people to see if they could get up from mats on the ground by themselves, but that was discontinued at least five years ago when the shelter acquired bunk beds.
IHS has had a disability accommodations policy in place for years, and the shelter will work with people with physical impairments to try to find a reasonable accommodation, she said.
Mitchell said that she invited Rodrigues into the shelter as soon as she heard about the Civil Rights Commission case but Rodrigues never came.
Mitchell also insisted that the shelter does not have a so-called “mattress test,” but rather requires people who stay there to be able to be independent, even if they’re in wheelchairs.
Still, as recently as May 18, the Legal Aid Society’s Fair Housing Testing Program had a volunteer tester call IHS to ask if he could enter the men’s shelter. He told the staff person that he was homeless, disabled and used a walker. He also told the staff person he needed a bed because of his disability, but was told that in order to stay at IHS, all residents must be able to get up off the floor without assistance.
A similar requirement is in place at the Lighthouse Outreach Center, a much smaller nonprofit organization in Waipahu that serves up to 85 people. The shelter’s program director, Bill Hummel, says it’s a question of limited staff and funding.
Jenny Lee, an attorney at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, thinks the fact that some shelters can’t afford to accommodate disabled people points to broader problems with how services are funded. The issue is even more concerning, she said, in light of Honolulu’s sit-lie bans, which are supposed to encourage people to go into shelters.
“If people with disabilities can’t go into shelters … we’re leaving out many of the most vulnerable at the same time we have these policies that are pushing them from place to place,” she said.
Even though Rodrigues, now 63, lives in an apartment in a senior housing complex in Wahiawa, she says the months she spent homeless left her traumatized.
“I am just a sack of garbage because that’s how you’re treated through the system,” she said. “That’s how it is and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
On a rainy afternoon, Rodrigues sits in her apartment in Wahiawa, flipping through dozens of folders and binders containing colorful papers chronicling her efforts to get housing assistance. The folders also hold old photos her early life in Trinidad.
One photo shows her dancing at Carnival, an annual cultural festival in Trinidad; in another, she’s in Washington, D.C., with her cousin, during the few years she spent in design school before getting married and moving to Hawaii.
There’s a blue employee handbook from her job as a dispatch supervisor at Shell Vacations Planet Go, a timeshare company where she was eventually laid off. Another binder includes her resume listing 10 years of work at Bank of Hawaii, five years at Central Pacific Bank, and 20 years in the tourism industry at Island World Tickets & Tours and Great Life Tours.
A folder contains dozens of housing applications: Honuakaha Senior Housing, Artesian Vista, Hale Mohalu II Senior, Kalakaua Vista, Ainahou Vista, Banyan Street Manor, Senior Residence at Kapolei Phase 1 and 2, to name a few.
There’s a folder dedicated to food stamps; another to disability income; the thickest is packed with documents related to her medical care at Waikiki Health.
Perhaps because of her tendency to jot everything down — her calendars are covered in scribbles, and she even saves envelopes of mail she receives — she has an uncanny memory of dates.
She recalls that on June 24, 1974, she arrived in Hawaii at Hickam Air Force base at age 23 with her husband, an Army weatherman.
Ten years later, on April 1, 1984, she remembers he asked her for a divorce at 6 a.m.
The divorce was finalized five years later, court records show. She switched from working in the banking industry to the tourism industry. Her son graduated from Punahou. Life was normal.
Then one Friday morning, April 28, 2011, she went to work at the timeshare company in Waikiki; by lunchtime, she had been laid off.
The following Monday she lined up outside a state office in Punchbowl to collect unemployment benefits and seek help finding a job. But her age and disability limited her to clerical work, and she couldn’t find another position.
For two years, she looked for jobs and used up her savings. The $900 monthly rent at her one-bedroom apartment in Waikiki soon became unaffordable. By the time she was evicted, she owed hundreds of dollars to Hawaiian Electric Co., and over $4,000 in rent and fees to her landlord.
She called numerous social service organizations to find a place to stay but didn’t have any luck finding a place that would accept her. Some organizations only helped families; others were geared to people who were mentally ill or recovering addicts; others had fees Rodrigues couldn’t afford.
She called IHS four times in the fall of 2012 to ask about shelter but received the same response about the admissions test, according to the questionnaire she filed with the Civil Rights Commission. The Legal Aid Society also called IHS in November 2012 and received the same reply; the organization followed up with a letter to the shelter but never heard back.
Rodrigues says her difficulties getting into IHS were just a few of the many challenges she faced finding a place that would accept her.
“There’s no 411 to say ‘Listen, here’s my situation, where do I go, what do I do about this?’” Rodrigues said. “There’s a lot of it for people who are recovering addicts or who are on drugs or who want to quit smoking. … But for someone like me who has been a working person and I find myself in this situation, there’s no phone number to go to, there’s no go-to place to say … ‘Where can I go, what does one do now?’”
With the help of Catholic Charities, Rodrigues added her name to wait lists for senior housing in Wahiawa. She wouldn’t hear back for years.
The eviction process was humiliating. She was locked out of her apartment on May 3, 2013. That was the first night she had to sleep in her car.
The federal Fair Housing Act was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. At first, it prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. In 1988, disability was added to that list.
The law applies to homeless shelters that receive government funding, and the Institute for Human Services received more than $4.8 million in government grants in 2013, according to its annual report. The shelter also received millions in government contracts. All in all, taxpayer funds made up over 68 percent of the shelter’s $10 million revenue that year.
“When you receive money from the government you have to be sure that that money is used fairly and equally for everyone,” said Jelani Madaraka, lead civil rights analyst at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “It’s housing and the law covers housing, it’s that simple.”
That means that a policy like the so-called “mattress test” would be illegal without any type of accommodation for disabled homeless people, he said.
“These people still have civil rights that have to be respected, that have to be protected, that have to be honored,” he said.
There are exceptions if the shelter can prove that providing disability accommodations would represent an “undue hardship.”
Hummel from Lighthouse Outreach Shelter said the organization simply doesn’t have the staff to provide services to people who can’t get up and down from the floor by themselves.
Currently, the shelter provides mats, lockers, case management services and dinner for up to 85 people each night on a budget of $380,000 per year. It receives $13 per person per night from the state.
“We can’t accept anyone who can’t get up and down off the mat unassisted,” he said, explaining that the shelter has three or fewer staff members per night. “We don’t have the staff to assist people to get up and down to go to the bathroom.”
Hummel said he recently connected with a case management organization called Access Independent and plans to refer disabled clients to them if they are denied shelter at Lighthouse Outreach Center. The shelter is also considering transitioning into a 24-hour shelter, which would come with an increase in funding.
Although he says he understands the Fair Housing Act, Hummel said providing services for the disabled is costly, and incurs liability, which in turn requires insurance against liability.
“It’s like if someone comes to our shelter who requires medical assistance, we can’t provide that. There’s things we can’t do,” he said. “Having said that, I understand the law provides coverage but the law doesn’t mandate funding. It’s an unfunded mandate.”
Serving disabled people is “out of the mainstream of being a homeless provider,” Hummel said.
But Michael Allen, a national expert on disability discrimination, thinks that the addition of “disability” to the Fair Housing Act in 1988 signaled that Congress wanted to impose a “national policy of including people with disabilities in the American mainstream.”
He says a lot of disabled people who are homeless are in that situation in part due to their disability.
If you’re disabled, “you’re much less likely to be fully employed, to marry or to have children, which means that typically you don’t have other resources to fall back on,” he said.
You’re also more likely to be poor, he said.
“The deck is really stacked against people with disabilities, particularly in markets where rental costs are high,” Allen said.
In Honolulu, rents are increasing faster than any other city in the nation.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission has seen a growing number of disability discrimination cases in recent years where the agency has determined housing providers have violated federal fair housing laws, according to the commission’s executive director Bill Hoshijo.
That’s why rules that bar people from shelter if they can’t lie down or get back up by themselves are problematic, Allen said.
“When you have rules in place like this … you’re basically saying to people with mobility impairments, you need not even apply here, you’re disqualified from the very beginning,” he said. “These kinds of barriers, they really are absolute barriers. If the homeless shelter system is not accessible … there really is no other safety net to catch them.”
Ingrid woke up one night with a man’s face pressed against her car window, his hand sticking through the window, grasping for the lock.
She had been sleeping in her car near the Honolulu Zoo, and the heat had compelled her to leave the window open a crack.
As soon as she realized someone was about to break in, she grabbed her keys, shoved them in the ignition and turned on the car. The man pulled his hand out, jumped on a bike and raced away.
That was just one of several times Rodrigues felt afraid sleeping alone in her car, her Bible next to her. A lantern that she got from Catholic Charities served as a reading light. One night in November 2013, she filed a police report after her car was vandalized with spray paint.
The days were busy and monotonous. Every morning she went to Ala Moana Beach Park and used the restrooms after they were cleaned at 6 a.m. She bathed herself, washed her clothes and hung them from the windows of her car.
She would buy food off McDonald’s dollar menu and often go to church or to Bible study. Some days it was raining so much that she couldn’t get dry.
Depression and loneliness were inescapable. Her closest family member was her son, who lived in Nevada and lost his job around the same time that she became unemployed.
She felt as though her friends were ashamed to speak with her. She was afraid of other homeless people, and mostly kept to herself, except for attending church and Bible study groups.
Her health deteriorated dramatically. When she became homeless, she had severe arthritis, Meniere’s disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Exposure to the elements caused cellulitis, a disease created by ulcers on her legs that often ail homeless people. That made it even harder to walk; she still has purple bruises on her ankles.
“Human beings weren’t meant to live outdoors,” Rodrigues said. “Even cavemen lived in caves.”
Rodrigues said that by the time she heard that she could enter IHS, her physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point where she didn’t have the will to move into the shelter. Her legs were wrapped up and her ulcers were oozing, and she had started needing to rely on a rolling walker to get around.
“I was done with IHS. I was just done already,” she said. “All I wanted to do was just die, I just wanted it to be over and done with.”
She imagined driving her white Toyota Corolla into the ocean, the windows rolled up, the car disappearing into the blue water.
Throughout this time, the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission was investigating Rodrigues’ claims while settlement negotiations were ongoing.
According to state law, when a housing discrimination complaint is filed with the commission, the state is supposed to investigate within 100 days and publish an investigative report.
Hoshijo says that deadline is rarely met because of staff and resource constraints. The agency lost three of 11 investigators during budgets cuts due to the 2008 recession and those positions haven’t been restored, he said.
As of last month, eight people were investigating 382 cases.
In 2012, housing cases took an average of 228 days to close. In 2013, the average was 291 days and in 2014, it was 274.
Rodrigues’ case took two years and three months to resolve.
There was also a four-month delay between the time that she filed a pre-complaint questionnaire with the commission in December 2012 and when the agency opened up the investigation in April 2013.
Hoshijo said he doesn’t know why the case took so long other than that the settlement process involved offers and counter-offers, and Rodrigues was seeking relief that IHS wouldn’t agree to.
Rodrigues said she wanted the shelter to pay her landlord the $4,050 in back rent and fees because if IHS had agreed to take her in, she would have been able to move before she got so far behind in her rent.
According to Rodrigues, the judge let her off the hook for the bill because she didn’t have the money, but she still felt IHS should cover the debt.
Rodrigues also wanted a bunk bed near the bathroom, a parking stall and asked the shelter to change its policies and train its entire staff in fair housing law, especially the people who answer the phones.
On paper, the shelter’s policies regarding disability accommodations seem comprehensive. They’re also widely advertised when you enter the women’s shelter: A sign on first bulletin board inside the shelter emphasizes that fair housing is the law. Visitors can pick up a “reasonable accommodations” form in the hallway, next to a list of rules.
Mitchell of IHS said that she felt many of Rodrigues’ requests, including rent repayment and a parking space and training for the full staff, were inappropriate.
“They didn’t seem to have any understanding of an organization’s responsibility for making sure that we have the capacity to provide the care that someone needs,” she said.
She also didn’t think training the entire staff would make much of a difference. “People are aware of the accommodations that we need to make,” she said.
In December 2013, Rodrigues called the governor’s office to tell him that she was planning to drive her car into the ocean because she couldn’t find a place to stay in Hawaii after working and paying taxes for over 30 years.
That’s when she was connected to a case worker who, along with her doctors, helped her get off the streets and find temporary shelter in Kalaeloa in April 2014. Rodrigues was there for nearly a year when she learned that she was finally off the wait list for a senior housing complex in Wahiawa. She moved in on March 9.
Rodrigues’ bedroom is still filled with boxes and suitcases she hasn’t yet been able to unpack. Two Bibles sit on the bedstand next to a twin bed.
The living room is furnished largely with donated furniture and trinkets. At the center of her coffee table is a yellow Mother’s Day card from her son in a vase. On her refrigerator is a white sticker reading, “I Love Waikiki Health,” a reminder of her beloved doctors.
She’s been in this apartment since March, but it doesn’t feel like home — the property manager has a key and can enter at any time, making Rodrigues feel stripped of her privacy.
Money problems persist. She gets $1,326 a month from disability payments, and pays $316 in rent and $96 in utilities. Her phone bill is $80 per month, and between food, taxes, gas and other bills money is still tight.
Twice over the past two years she’s had to take out payday loans — first, to pay off taxes and then to come up with money she needed to get into her apartment. She has paid hundreds of dollars in interest.
But more than the financial stress — and the practical reality that she could end up on the streets again — is the feeling that she no longer belongs anywhere.
“It’s not even scars, it’s like the stitches are still there,” she said of her experience. “They haven’t melted and disappeared, they haven’t been taken out.”
She takes small comfort in the fact that her case against IHS has been settled. She’s glad it’s over, and said her biggest concern is that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.
“I hope it can help somebody somewhere,” she said. “Even if it helps one person it will still help somebody. So many people don’t know that they can do something about their situation.”