Kehaulani Repolio became homeless on Oahu when she was about 18 years old.
For four years, she slept on the streets of downtown Honolulu and Chinatown and “hit the bottom of hell” before she got off the waitlist of a youth shelter in Kailua called RYSE earlier this year.
“I was in desperate need of housing,” she said.
Now, the 22-year-old has a rare opportunity to help other homeless youth.
Repolio is one of nine young people who have experienced homelessness and are helping to decide how $3.8 million in federal funding should be spent to help get youth off the streets in Honolulu.
The grant is part of $75 million that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded to 23 communities nationwide in August.
While government spending decisions are usually made by politicians or other policy leaders, HUD is instead empowering youth who have experienced homelessness themselves to lead the formation of community plans.
“Who better to tell us what young people need than actual young people?” asked Carla Houser, executive director of RYSE, which stands for Residential Youth Services & Empowerment.
The Oahu Youth Action Board members is expected to submit a plan to HUD by December. The goal is to fund local support systems to drastically reduce the number of youth experiencing homelessness.
The plan will assess the needs of special populations at higher risk of experiencing homelessness, including racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people, young parents, youth involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, and young victims of human trafficking, according to HUD.
The group’s vision will help shape service provider contracts to benefit people under 24 who are experiencing homelessness.
“When they turn 18, they’re supposed to magically fit into the adult system,” Houser said. “We see a lot of young people in the 18-24 range who fall through the cracks.”
Growing up on the west side of Oahu and the Big Island, Repolio said she was “passed around the family” and didn’t have a stable upbringing.
When she got the chance, she “rushed into adulthood” and moved in with people she didn’t know. One of her new roommates was a drug dealer and “messed me up badly, drug-wise,” Repolio said.
She felt trapped but didn’t want to tell her family and wind up putting them at risk.
“I was an 18-year-old kid that was like ‘yeah, I’m an adult now. Let’s move into town. I can trust these people right off the bat even though I don’t know them,'” she said.
“And it was like, boom, bad situation. Can’t go home,” she added.
Ultimately, she left the drug dealer. But she was traumatized and scared of retaliation. From ages 19 to 22, she said she slept in Waikiki, Waahila Ridge above St. Louis Heights and in a garage in Kalihi. Later, she moved to downtown and Chinatown.
Restful sleep was something she didn’t really experience until she came to RYSE, she said.
“No matter where I went, I ended up somehow sexually assaulted,” she said.
During an Oahu Youth Action Board meeting on Wednesday, Repolio and other members outlined their vision for a Honolulu without youth homelessness. Part of that discussion was about removing the obstacles people face when trying to obtain stable housing.
Brandy Gouveia said affordable housing needs to be “actually affordable.” And wages are too low, she said.
When Houser shared with the group that a single person needs to make $51,507 a year to afford a studio apartment in Hawaii, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, Gouveia scoffed.
“You can’t afford a car, you can’t afford a phone, you can’t afford to eat,” on that salary, Gouveia said.
Public assistance programs like food stamps exist, but Gouveia said they’re out of reach for people who don’t meet eligibility requirements. “I make too much, but I need it.”
The group worked on a list of stakeholders they want to contribute to their community plan. It includes officials from the court system, law enforcement, substance abuse service providers and counselors.
Several members brought their babies and toddlers to the meeting and spoke about the need for affordable childcare.
Young people can’t afford childcare without a job, and it’s tough to get a job when you don’t have childcare, said Kaizy Kahalioumi, who was houseless at age 15 and lived out of a tent in Kakaako for years.
In other words, unemployment leads to poverty which leads to homelessness.
During Oahu’s most recent “point in time” count of homeless individuals, volunteers identified 144 unaccompanied people ages 18 to 24, most of whom were unsheltered, according to a report by Partners In Care, which coordinates homeless services on Oahu.
Volunteers also found 37 unaccompanied youth ages 17 and younger, 75% of whom are Native Hawaiian or multi-racial. But the true total of homeless youth is almost certainly higher. The PIT count is a one-day snapshot that captures only individuals who volunteers are able to locate.
Gouveia said she was homeless at age 12 when she ran away from her foster family. For the next six years, she bounced back and forth between foster homes and the street. She preferred the street, she said, because foster homes could be abusive environments.
She joined the Oahu Youth Action Board “to help the new homeless kids so they don’t have to struggle like I did.”
Her message to those young people: There is hope.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out,” she said. “Not everybody is the enemy. You’ve got to go find the good ones.”
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