Cimberley Calcote has lived in a state of panic since she found out her rental subsidy might expire in June.
For 12 years, Calcote has relied on the state Department of Health’s Supported Housing/Bridge Subsidy program, even though it was supposed to provide assistance to adults with severe mental illnesses for just two years.
The program serves 100 people statewide. They are assigned caseworkers and with the subsidy, pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent.
They’re expected to live independently after two years, usually with help from long-term rental assistance programs like the federal government’s Section 8.
But Hawaii’s shortage of affordable housing means options to replace the state subsidy are scarce.
About half the people on the program have received the subsidy for more than two years. Forty-eight have used it for five years and 23, including Calcote, have used it for more than a decade.
The number of subsidies is limited, so as some people remain on the program for years, others in need of it have ended up on waiting lists.
In an effort to make sure the short-term subsidy is no longer used as a permanent solution, officials announced last month that recipients who have received it for longer than two years are expected to find an alternative by the end of May.
“That’s what scared a lot of people,” said Linda Ahue, the executive director of Steadfast Housing Development Corporation, one of two nonprofits contracted to administer the program.
The department will extend the subsidy for those who haven’t found housing after the May 31 cutoff, but recipients will need to prove they’re applying for permanent housing alternatives, DOH officials said.
“They can’t just sit at home and ask for an extension,” said Yara Sutton, the homeless and housing service coordinator for the DOH Adult Mental Health Division. “They have to at least be trying to find permanent housing in the community.”
If participants and caseworkers show the department the steps they’ve taken to find housing, the department can leverage its own resources to aid the search, said Adult Mental Health Division Chief Mark Fridovich.
Calcote, 53, said she found out about the change when her landlord told her she could only sign up for a month-to-month lease on her Wahiawa apartment rather than a year-long lease.
She said she wasn’t aware the program was only meant to last two years.
“How in the hell could I be on that program 12 years? How?” she said. “We just kept sitting there waiting and asking when Section 8 was going to open up, when would we get in. I didn’t wait around for this to happen, and for 12 years, and for me to be homeless.”
The changes to the subsidy program are part of a statewide effort to ensure housing and homelessness services go to the populations they’re intended to serve, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.
“What’s this program really intended to do?” Morishige said. “It’s intended to be a bridge so let’s try and look at utilizing it as a bridge program.”
Starting in May, subsidy applicants will need to have had a job for at least three months to qualify.
That way, “they can at least show that they’re establishing some type of system to live independently,” Sutton said.
Calcote hasn’t worked for years.
She said she started showing schizophrenic tendencies when she was 17, a year before she enlisted in the Army.
Nearly a decade into her service, Calcote said she suffered a brain injury that worsened her mental illness.
“I wanted to stay in for life but I started hearing voices,” she said.
She was homeless when she moved back to Hawaii in 2000 with her two children.
Once on the Supported Housing/Bridge Subsidy, Calcote got through a practical nursing program despite struggling with conditions such as dissociative identity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and trichotillomania — which causes her to pull out her hair.
She said she worked for a few months at The Queen’s Medical Center in 2010 but had to quit when she began hearing voices and hasn’t had a job since.
“It’s really hard for me to walk around and talk to people,” she said. “I get really scared.”
She takes Oxycodone for pain that’s resulted from her brain injury and says she’s become addicted.
Rather than abandoning Calcote after two years using the rental assistance program, the Department of Health kept extending her subsidy so she could continue living on her own.
“They understand that you know, Section 8 is closed, and there is a long waiting list for public housing. So they’ve been very generous in extending the subsidy,” said Ahue.
Extending the subsidies created a backlog of people waiting to get on the short-term assistance program.
Steadfast had 182 clients on a waiting list for the Bridge Subsidy program as of December, Ahue said.
Mental Health Kokua is the other nonprofit administering the Bridge Subsidy program besides Steadfast. The number of Mental Health Kokua clients waiting for the subsidy was not available.
Since the program began about 18 years ago, 554 of 1,100 Steadfast clients using the subsidy have transitioned to Section 8 housing — which is in extremely high demand.
The city closed its Section 8 waiting list in 2014.
When the state-run Section 8 program opened its waiting list for three days in 2016 for the first time in a decade, 10,665 people applied to be considered for one of 50 available slots.
Calcote keeps an aloe vera and a small jade plant in two pots outside her apartment in a pink two-story walk-up.
Her landlord takes $100 off her rent each month because Calcote does small chores around the complex.
In late December, Calcote said she had a psychotic outbreak. She started hearing voices and got lost.
“I look back on it now and I’m so embarrassed and ashamed,” she said. “I thought I was hearing those things.”
Despite her mental illness, Calcote feels she’s well enough to live on her own.
“She is really stuck between a higher level of care than what she needs and the kind of housing that she does need but that’s not available,” said Marya Grambs, a board member of the nonprofit advocacy group PHOCUSED. “She ends up in limbo and that’s a really hard place to be.”
PHOCUSED works to “protect the interest of Hawaii’s most vulnerable people,” according to the group’s mission statement.
People with mental illnesses and disabilities make up about 30 percent of Hawaii’s homeless population, according to Greg Payton, the executive director of Mental Health Kokua.
“We really need a broader vision or a broader plan for how were going to house those people,” he said.
Calcote said her only income comes from Social Security Disability Insurance and food stamps. It amounts to $11,868 annually.
The health department funds group homes where people with mental illnesses can live and receive varying degrees of supervision and care, ranging from eight- to 24-hour-per-day service.
Calcote tears up at the thought of entering a group home, afraid that she’ll be forced to give up her service animal, a miniature pinscher, and lose her freedom.
Still, that’s the option she says her case manager is encouraging her to take.
“Everybody wants to live on their own,” said Ahue of Steadfast. “But if there is no funding for that and if there are openings in the group homes, you know, that would be a good alternative.”