He didn’t figure to live past his 50s.
For almost six years, Robert Binnie lived on the streets of Waikiki. The words scrawled across his cardboard sign: “Anything helps. God bless.” He hid his gaunt face under a large scruffy beard and a mop of matted hair. He wrestled with mental illness and substance abuse, two of the leading causes of death among the homeless in Hawaii. So often was he beaten up that staff at Queen’s Hospital recognized his frail frame by sight.
Every day, he’d beg on the corner of Kalakaua and Kapahulu until he had enough money to disappear into a cloud of whiskey and weed.
When I first met Binnie this summer, it was a different story. He greeted me with a solid handshake. His eyes crinkled behind thick, black-rimmed glasses. At age 58, he had a new outlook on life.
“Now I think I’m gonna live ‘til I’m 80!” he chuckles. He’s stayed clean and sober for two years. He lives in a tidy one-bedroom apartment in Honolulu. He’s taking classes at Kapiolani Community College, and he teaches children about marine life at the Waikiki Aquarium.
At first, Binnie hesitated to share his past. Not many people in his current life know about it. He worked hard to move past all of that. But he also hopes sharing it may speak to others who are in the same place he was two years ago.
“If my story can help one person, it will be worth it,” he said. His transformation came through persistent pursuit and will. But he couldn’t have done it without support from a variety of government resources and a network of caring people.
According to a 2015 survey by the City & County of Honolulu, at least a third of Hawaii’s unsheltered homeless population suffer from mental illness. Some of these people have received shelter and help. But many of those who do get help wind up back on the streets within the first year. For individuals with mental illness, the war on homelessness doesn’t end with an apartment key. The fight for long-term recovery and success is ongoing, and often relies on sustained support.
Binnie was in seventh grade when he dropped out of school and ran away from home in Texas, in a desperate attempt to escape the latest of a series of abusive stepdads.
Despite his rough youth, he found steady work as a house painter in his early 20s in Santa Barbara, Calif. He fell in love and married.
But he wrestled with episodes of severe, undiagnosed depression, anger and thoughts of suicide. After eight years, he and his wife divorced. Then, during the housing crash of 2007, he lost his job in Santa Barbara.
“People weren’t worried about painting their houses; they were just worried about keeping them,” he recalls.
Binnie took the last of his savings and moved to Hawaii. He quickly found work selling cars at a dealership. But within one month, he lost both his temper and his job. He had no money, no options, and soon he found himself on the streets of Waikiki, sliding into a downward spiral.
He learned to sleep with his backpack as his pillow, the strap wrapped around his wrist. When someone tried to grab it, he’d quickly wake up and yell.
Usually, the thief would retreat. But one attacker punched Binnie repeatedly in the face until he let go, then ran off with his pack.. Binnie hunched into the ground as blood seeped from deep gashes across his lips and mixed with saliva into the dirt below.
What could he do? He wrote another sign, and begged until he had money to stop the pain. He just needed enough for a bottle of cheap whiskey.
“I just wanted to die; and I really thought I would,” he says.
The streets had always seemed like a better option than any of the shelters in Honolulu. He didn’t trust staying in a room crowded with other street characters. They were the ones he avoided on the streets. He didn’t trust the staff, either. He wouldn’t even go to the shelter for a hot meal.
But a three-day torrential rainstorm sabotaged his begging. The streets were empty and he was starving.
The line for food at the Institute for Human Services shelter stretched out the door. Binnie tried to avert his gaze from one man in particular.
“I’m not even going to look at him.” — Robert Binnie
“He’s five down the row from me, waiting for food, and I’m not even going to look at him. I look this way.” The scarred corners of Binnie’s mouth pull back into a grimace as he recalls the man: the rolls of fat around his ankles; the fecal matter caked between the creases; the clusters of sores bleeding openly.
What happened next became what he refers to as his “defining moment.”
Inside, the blades of the dusty fan turned leisurely. The heat and humidity were unbearable. They intensified the stench of rotting flesh emanating from the man’s feet. As Binnie looked away, he noticed a worker approach with soapy rags. Gently, the worker pulled the man aside.
“He … starts cleaning all of his bloody sores on his feet and legs and takes some dry towels, cleans up the mess. And then he starts putting ointments and bandages on him, real carefully. The big guy didn’t say thank you to him or anything at all; but it didn’t matter. The little guy just walks away and goes inside, and it just hit me….” Binnie exhales, and his eyebrows reach towards his hairline. “You don’t recognize somebody being so kind without wanting something back.” His tone lowers, and he shakes his head.“Well, I didn’t.”
That day, Binnie decided to trust the IHS shelter enough to stay there. He was assigned a caseworker. It wasn’t easy. Binnie would be in and out of the shelter for 16 months from the time of his first contact to when he was placed in an apartment.
At first, he did the minimum. But if he wanted to stay, his case worker said, he would have to attend anger-management and life skills classes.
As he built trust with his caseworker, he started following his suggestions. He attended an Alcoholics Anonymous group. He signed up for welfare and Quest health insurance, resources he had never thought to apply for when he was on the streets.
Binnie strokes his chin, eyeing the stubble in the mirror as he prepares to shave before his class at Kapiolani Community College.
He could make up to $100 in one day of begging in Waikiki, Binnie says. “The worse I looked, the more money I got.” Now, he takes extra time each day to groom meticulously.
Once Binnie had medical insurance, he started seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was his first time receiving therapy and medication. Both drastically reduced the severity of his mood swings. “It’s like night and day,” he says.
With the diagnosis, Binnie became eligible for Shelter Plus, a federally-funded housing subsidy for those with disabilities. He moved into a small one-bedroom apartment near Waikiki. While people in Shelter Plus are required to pay 30% of their income to rent, Binnie has no income yet. So Shelter Plus pays his $1,100 monthly rent in full, for now. His electric bill is covered by the Hawaii Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. He receives $350 per month in food stamps, $300 in welfare, and an Obama Phone, a free flip-phone with 250 monthly minutes.
Binnie can meet all his basic expenses by piecing together these programs. But each comes with rules and time limits. His two-year expiration date for welfare is coming up; he is on the second of three chances to appeal. If his appeals fail, SSI disability is his last hope. To stay eligible for Shelter Plus, he has to see his psychiatrist every month, take his medication, and submit documentation.
These rules can make starting a job – and keeping one – complicated.
This semester, Binnie was working with a case manager at the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to apply for student jobs at the community college. He can only accept a job if his counselor decides he can handle the stress. If Binnie gets a job, he’ll have to be sure his monthly income doesn’t exceed $1,119, the upper limit of the poverty level for a single individual in Honolulu. A higher income could affect his eligibility for medical insurance. Without insurance, he couldn’t keep seeing his psychiatrist. If he can’t see his psychiatrist, he could lose his housing assistance.
Shelter Plus also requires Binnie to pass drug tests and annual inspections. That meant eliminating everything from his old life. Many of his street acquaintances have asked to use his shower or to sleep on his floor. It’s hard, because some of them are good people, he laments.
But he tells them no. He would get kicked out if he let somebody else move in. He’s equally afraid of getting dragged back into his old habits.
“I have to protect myself… so many people get kicked out because they let their friends move in; and I’m not going to,” he says. “I can’t. I’m in my 50s! Not now.”
From his perch on his kitchen stool, he leans over the counter. He shakes a small yellow food jar to attract the attention of his faithful companion, a solitary blue beta fish. “We’re like two old grumpy men. He pretends to be interested in what I say,” Binnie chuckles.
When he isn’t studying, Binnie often rides his bike to the reef at Ala Moana Beach Park, or takes the bus to Hanauma Bay. With his small Panasonic Lumix waterproof camera he makes videos of the marine life he discovers: a trumpet fish, a blue-dot grouper, even a scrawled filefish.
But his favorite afternoon activity is volunteering at the Waikiki Aquarium. Last year he completed a training course to become an Aquarium Educator. Most afternoons, he leads a hands-on hermit crab exhibit, or educates small groups on different exhibits. Binnie enjoys belonging to a community of good people. He pulls out a picture of himself next to Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who is clutching two large conch shells over his ears.
Look, here’s the Mayor,” he chuckles, “doing his impersonation of Princess Leia. And look at me, just cracking up.”
At the aquarium, Binnie looks like anyone else; he’s clean-cut and well spoken. His enthusiasm for the marine life is contagious. When he tells the story of the capture of the $30,000 deep-water peppermint angelfish, children and adults flock to listen. “Did you hear what he said?” one woman excitedly asks her son.
In the confines of his apartment, however, Binnie says he’s still chased by a sense of impending doom. He worries that he’ll mess up and lose everything again.
“My whole history is good things happen, and then it crashes… but I’m trying to get beyond that.”
To create security for his future, Binnie is working on a new plan. Forty-five years after he dropped out, he’s going back to school.
“I want a car someday — maybe. I have a good driver’s license — no wrecks, no tickets.” But he doesn’t think he could ever have a car or afford his own place on minimum wage.
Binnie’s rehabilitation case manager has been helping him find a new career path. Last year he enrolled in an iCAN program. The 135–hour adult education program encompasses basic reading, writing, and math skills. Everything culminated in February 2014 with a placement test that allowed him to begin taking college prerequisite classes.
The test revealed something astonishing. It gave Binnie hope that he could, indeed, find success.
While he failed the math section, he scored the highest possible skill level in English. Binnie has always loved reading. He had a lot of time for books when he was homeless and hanging out in the library. This newfound strength gave him confidence.
“I didn’t know how to learn,” he says. ‘When I was super frustrated and struggling with math, throwing my books against the wall, it helped to know I had those higher scores in English, backing me up.”
Now, Binnie’s goal is to teach math. He found a tutor. A retired teacher, Charlis Lee doesn’t normally agree to tutor. But she was impressed by Binnie’s motivation, she says.
A breeze gusts through the jalousies in his apartment, fluttering note cards covered in equations against the walls, pulling at the blue painter’s tape that holds them in place. Charlis insisted Binnie memorize multiplication facts. And so he started making note cards, hundreds of them. During the course of their year working together, Binnie progressed to pre-calculus level math.
“Everyone has a different definition of success,” says Binnie. “For me, it was discovering mathematics and getting past that hurdle where I hated it and none of it made sense.”
“I no longer blame others for my failures. I take personal responsibility for all my actions and inactions. So I think that’s success.”
Binnie’s eyes brighten when he talks about teaching. He wants to help others with the same math challenges he’s faced.
But there’s uncertainty in his voice. He still has to complete his GED certificate before he can transfer to the University of Hawaii. He isn’t sure how long it will take to finish.
“Sometimes I think never,” he sighs, squeezing his knuckles between the palm and fingers of his opposing hand.
It can be daunting to keep up with 20-somethings. His medication can cloud his thinking and make it hard to concentrate. The frustration has led him to walk out of class.
“I had to go down the hall and sit on the steps out back and cry. I couldn’t deal with it. The kids are real smart, and they get it real quickly; and the professor will be working it out on the board and I don’t get it,” he says, chatting at his apartment. “It’s like all Chinese to me… I just put my head down… But no yelling or cussing. I do all of that here in private.”
Binnie flips through the pages of his composition pad. He reads each page of calculations like a diary entry. The pages are wrinkled with signs of moisture and wear, doubling the thickness between the black-and-white checkered covers.
“This was the day I finally solved an equation I’d been working on for three days,” he smiles, as he smooths a page of math equations. The bottom of the page has his note: “CORRECT! FINALLY!!!!!”
His hand shakes lightly as it hovers over another entry five pages later. The double spread of equations is covered in red lines and swear words, and the phrase “EXPLANATION THAT PROBABLY MAKES NO SENSE.”
“That was the day with the dog,” he says in hushed tones.
He had left the house frustrated, he says. He ran into a loudly barking dog. jumping in his face. He snapped and started yelling and swearing at the owner of the dog. She called the police. No one was hurt, and no charges were pressed; but after the incident, Binnie’s case manager at the DVR asked him to take a break from his math class. He’s spent the past couple of weeks working privately with his tutor.
Despite setbacks, Binnie has worked steadily on his math curriculum for over a year. “That’s another thing math taught me. You have to make mistakes, and it’s good to make mistakes, because that’s how you learn. I’m learning I no longer have to be perfect, as long as I keep moving forward and trying to improve.”
Binnie hopes his new mindset will help him overcome future hurdles. He still has a long way to go, but he’s happy he’s made it this far.
He closes his math notebook gently and sets it to the side, a smile on his face. “I don’t want to die… but if I did die, I’d be like ‘yes, at least I woke up before I died.’ Because I’d hate to die still being in the darkness. How do you tell that to other people?”