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Cows graze lazily on the 400-acre Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility in Kailua. Its population has dwindled over the last 10 years, but for four months now young people have been coming here of their own volition.
“We’re about a mile away from the closest bus station and kids are walking with suitcases and backpacks all the way to our property,” said Warden Mark Patterson, who oversees the facility.
They’re trying to get to Residential Youth Services and Empowerment, a homeless shelter for people ages 18 to 24 that opened four months ago on the correctional facility grounds.
Past an unmanned guard shack and behind a maze of fences, RYSE holds 10 beds for women and 10 more for men. Homeless teens under 18 can’t stay overnight – the state has a special protocol for minors – but they’re free to come by from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
RYSE is the only shelter of its type on Oahu.
Its founder, Carla Houser, used to work as the program manager at Youth Outreach in Waikiki, a drop-in center where people 21 and under can get free food, clothes, hot showers and other services. The problem, Houser said, is that after the center closes at 6 p.m., “there (is) nothing out there for them.”
Publicly funded homeless services across the state served 807 unaccompanied people under age 24 from July 2016 to June 2017, according to a report by the University Hawaii at Manoa Center on the Family and the state Department of Human Services. Almost all of them – 93 percent – were ages 18 to 24.
Small potted succulents grow around the sink in the women’s bathroom at RYSE beneath a sign that reads “Hello Beautiful” in loopy cursive letters. RYSE is set up more like a college dorm than a homeless shelter.
Just after 8 a.m. on a weekday morning, residents sit around the couch in the living room watching TV. Things are calm until one girl starts raising her voice to another.
“Enough, go to your room,” Philip Humphrey, the youth development specialist at RYSE, tells her in an effort to defuse the situation. Instead, she steps outside with Humphrey and Houser to talk it out. In a few minutes she’s back inside watching TV with the others.
Underlying RYSE is the belief that homeless people in this age group will benefit from group living before moving into their own place because they still need supervision and guidance akin to what parents would offer.
“You can cuss me out, you can be all up in my face, you can tell me how shitty the program is and how terrible we all are, and I’m still going to be happy to see you, I’m still going to treat you fairly, I’m still going to follow through on the things that I said I was going to do,” said Houser.
Houser modeled RYSE after Janus Youth Programs in Portland, Oregon. The shelter’s tiered system, in which participants move up from cots to their own bedroom as they take on more responsibilities, contrasts with the Housing First model embraced by local and state officials, which aims to identify chronically homeless people and quickly get them into permanent, supportive housing.
RYSE’s services meet the unique needs of young adults who never had stable housing or a family to fall back on, said state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige. Transitioning to housing, he said, requires learning “soft skills,” like how to cook or pay bills on time.
At 22, Marino Espinoza is the first and only person to graduate from RYSE. After eight years in and out of homelessness, Espinoza now holds down three jobs and lives in a studio in Kaimuki.
Being forced to earn her keep at RYSE and having adults to hold her accountable helped the already motivated Espinoza make the transition to independent living.
“RYSE doesn’t just give handouts,” she said. “They’re not there to be your crutch.”
Life on the street gave Espinoza tunnel vision. She said she became so “encased” in the daily drama surrounding drug use, theft and chaotic relationships that it became impossible for her to see beyond her immediate situation, much less plan a way out of poverty.
That’s where RYSE’s only outreach worker, Lee Miyashiro, comes in. Houser hired Miyashiro because he’s not afraid to work all hours and get into the bushes to find homeless clients, who are increasingly pushed to the periphery by homeless sweeps.
Miyashiro tailors his approach to connect with young people. When RYSE opened in June, he put up posters all over communities along Windward Oahu as if he were advertising a rock concert.
With gauges, tattoos and the occasional deep inhale of his e-cigarette, he looks a lot younger than his age of 42.
He walks around homeless encampments and parks handing out condoms, candy and Capri Sun juice packs. After four months, Miyashiro knows most of the homeless people he comes across.
Building trust is central to his work. It’s especially important when working with young people for whom adults have long been the source of trauma.
In a 2018 survey of 151 homeless or formerly homeless people 12 to 24 years old on Oahu, 77.5 percent reported they had experienced sexual, emotional or physical abuse. Almost half had experienced homelessness first with their families and 40 percent had been in foster care, according to the study by the UH Center on the Family and local nonprofits Hale Kipa and Waikiki Health.
There’s a 17-person waiting list for a men’s bed at RYSE. Some people on the list slept along the fence bordering the property. Women’s beds are more difficult to fill because many young women who live on the streets link up with a man, and going to RYSE would mean leaving him.
Many young people are reluctant to go to homeless shelters designed for single adults.
“They get into the front door, they see these older people, some of them not smelling all that great, they see the mat on the ground, they see the bedbugs and they’re like, ‘Hell no. I’d rather be on the street.’ And I personally don’t blame them,” Miyashiro said.
If Miyashiro’s job is getting young people into the shelter, Humphrey’s job is getting them out.
RYSE’s youth development specialist teaches residents to do what millenials call “adulting.” Young people from Hawaii often move back in with their parents after returning from college on the mainland as they learn the ropes of adult life. The goal at RYSE is similar, but the residents’ needs are much different.
For most, this includes drug treatment, and staff at RYSE bemoan the lack of detox beds on Oahu.
Humphrey spends a lot of time navigating the labyrinthine bureaucracy surrounding state IDs, social security cards and birth certificates. Those vital records are “the keys to get a job,” Humphrey said.
The residents need to make $14 per hour to “at least scrape by,” Humphrey said. He often has to hold their hand through the process of getting a job, applying for trade school or getting their GED diploma.
“They’re so nervous about failing,” Humphrey said. “You’re 22, you say you’re a man, but you’re really (like) a 15-year-old scared kid.”
In a livestream she posted on Facebook last week, Espinoza says: “So, world, I just wanted to let y’all know, adulting sucks. Adulting sucks really badly. But when you pay your car note on time and your bills are on time, and everything is paid off and you ain’t got shit to worry about, adulting is freaking awesome.”
Those who work with homeless young people are quick to tell you that for every success story, many fall through the cracks. The worst-case scenarios involve suicide attempts, drug overdoses or Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, where Hawaii sends its overflowing prison population.
Of 537 unaccompanied people ages 18- 24 years old who used homeless services in a one-year period, the UH Center on the Family report found that just 26 percent exited into permanent housing.
“Often you never know what happened with a kid. They just disappear,” said Hale Kipa Youth Outreach supervisor Deborah Smith.
RYSE is a pilot project. If it works, those who oversaw its creation want to see it replicated elsewhere on the island. Houser has talked to state Department of Human Services officials about accessing some of the $30 million that lawmakers set aside this year for “safe zones,” legal homeless encampments where social and medical services are available.
For now, funding comes from private donors and the state offered up a vacant portable that once housed incarcerated women. A vacant, rundown portable is next to RYSE that Houser wants to turn into a health clinic, a computer lab and storage for used furniture that residents can take once they get permanent housing.
“There are buildings like this all over the state,” she said. “With community support we could be doing so much more.”
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