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For six years, Kimo Carvalho has been spokesman and chief fundraiser for the Institute for Human Services, Oahu’s oldest and largest homeless services provider.
On Friday, Carvalho left IHS to begin work as executive director of the Youth Services Center at Liliuokalani Trust.
As Carvalho starts his new job, it’s time to acknowledge how much he has done to shine a light on the complexities of the man-made catastrophe of homelessness in Hawaii.
He says it continues to be misunderstood.
“You would be surprised how many people still come up to me to say, ‘I have a solution to end homelessness and why aren’t you doing it?’” he said.
Carvalho has worked tirelessly to help the public recognize the different kinds of people who are driven for different reasons to live uncomfortably in their cars or in parks and on sidewalks. He’s also helped people understand the importance of viewing homeless individuals as human beings rather than nuisances to be ignored.
This is at a time when many people in Hawaii are battered by some of the same forces that created soaring homelessness: low-paying jobs, unaffordable rents and lack of drug treatment and mental health services.
I like to think of Carvalho as teaching Homelessness 101, a crash course for news reporters like me, police officers, tourism officials as well as social workers and policy makers.
Carvalho’s genius has been taking a marketing approach to homelessness by looking at it as a product that needs to be understood by the public in order to spur action.
He came to his job at IHS not as a social worker but with PR and business development skills from a previous job as director of public relations and outreach for Milici, Valenti, Ng, Pack, a Honolulu advertising and public relations firm.
IHS outreach field manager Justin Phillips says Carvalho made strong inroads when he successfully urged him and other very reluctant outreach workers and their homeless clients to participate in the award-winning documentary about Hawaii’s homeless, “No Room In Paradise.” by Anthony Aalto and Mike Hinchey.
“I didn’t want to be in the documentary,” Phillips said. “I worried it would be negative and run against our clients’ privacy relations. I was concerned if a homeless guy selling drugs was being filmed, he might attack the filmmakers. I really didn’t think we should participate. But Kimo kept saying,”No, it’s good. Let’s just do this.’”
Phillips, a recovering alcoholic, was once homeless himself, driving his car to Mokuleia each night to sleep on the beach. He was sensitive to the feelings of the homeless clients.
Phillips says after the documentary aired on Hawaii News Now in 2016, grandmothers and their grandchildren, fathers and sons, individuals and private businesses began calling IHS and other Oahu homeless service providers to find out how they could help.
“Kimo knew the film would be crucial for changing peoples’ perception of the homeless and homeless service providers. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened. The documentary brought homeless people off the streets and into peoples’ homes. It gave homeless individuals names and explained the barriers they faced to find housing.”
I remember being personally moved by a homeless man in the documentary who worked long hours as a dishwasher in a steamy hotel kitchen but was still struggling to get by.
The documentary also highlighted the struggles of the staff on the front lines in a way that had not been understood before.
Phillips said it was Carvalho’s emphasis on personalizing the problem that made donations start flowing in.
Carvalho was able to raise enough money from the private sector for IHS’s Airline Relocation Program to send 677 homeless people in Hawaii back to live with responsible family members on the mainland.
And, after years of Carvalho’s work educating the public, IHS finally convinced lawmakers to amend Hawaii’s Assisted Community Treatment law. The reforms will allow the courts to order treatment for the seriously mentally ill people on the streets, as you see in places like Chinatown, oblivious to life around them as they deteriorate on the streets.
Carvalho helped the media understand how to ask better questions and who to turn to for real information when Gov. David Ige’s administration persisted in trotting out the Federal Homeless Point in Time Count statistics to contend that the state’s homeless numbers were decreasing. Other statistics clearly showed that homeless peoples’ use of services were soaring across the state.
Just as people found homes and treatment, hundreds and hundreds more were becoming homeless.
“The governor was misleading people about the seriousness of the problem. He was taking a political position to look good while the crisis was blowing up,” said Carvalho.
Carvalho has taken unpopular stands such as criticizing churches and civic groups for setting up their own feeding stations for the homeless, which he says only enable people to live on the streets longer.
He says such handouts can make a difference, but only when they are done in partnership with professional outreach workers who can help the homeless connect with housing and treatment services. He is gratified to see more of such partnerships now with IHS and other nonprofits.
He has also staunchly defended the state’s sit-lie law that cites homeless who are languishing or setting up home on the sidewalks. He says the services offered to homeless about to be cited have encouraged many of them to consider getting help.
Carvalho is personally familiar with the chaotic nature of homelessness. His mother still lives on the sidewalks of Honolulu, moving back-and-forth from Ala Moana Beach Park to Kakaako to Chinatown.
He describes her as a perpetually distressed woman suffering from bipolar illness who is unaware she is homeless and barely recognizes him as her son.
When his mother ran into him once at a Christmas dinner he helped set up for the homeless at Harris United Methodist Church, after decades of absence, her only words to him were: “Would you like to play cards?”
When Carvalho was four and still in his mother’s custody one of her friends thought it would be funny to burn the little boy with a crystal meth pipe. He still has the scar on his leg.
After other harrowing incidents as they couch surfed from apartment to apartment, his mother recognized she could no longer raise him. She turned Carvalho over to his maternal grandparents in Kona.
When he was in the fifth grade, the family court then placed him in the custody of his father in Kona who one night in a fit of rage threw him out a window, rupturing his spleen. His father lost custody.
Kimo finally found stability as a foster child when the state placed him under the care of his paternal grandmother, Ingrid Carvalho.
And if you are wondering how he became a professional after his chaotic early childhood, Carvalho credits much of his progress to his grandmother.
“Every month, she took the $534 she received as a foster parent for my care and used all of it to pay my tuition at Damien Memorial School,” he said.
At Damien, a recruiter encouraged him to apply to Tulane University. He did, earning his undergraduate degree there and later admission into Tulane’s medical school. But he says he left after a year when he realized life as a physician was not for him.
He later got a masters degree in business from Hawaii Pacific University.
He says he was partially drawn to his new job at Lilioukalani Trust because when his family members in Kona were fighting over his custody he was referred to the Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center in Kona where a case manager named David Garcia counseled him.
“He helped me to learn how to make decisions for myself and how to chose friends and through him I learned I was a Native Hawaiian and what that meant,” he said. “All the things a child would have learned from his parents in a normal household.”
Carvalho hopes to bring some of that same support to Native Hawaiian youth at the trust.
And he wants to use his communication skills to continue to help others understand the barriers some children and adults face as they struggle to find stable, happy lives.
“The best thing people who want to help can do is get educated, because with education comes the impetus to take action,” he said.
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