Helping the homeless

Program helps youths transition off streets

Wednesday, September 13, 2006 9:24 AM HST

Huellyn Whitford, from Family Support Services of West Hawaii, makes her weekly rounds of Old Kona Airport State Park in search of homeless youths. - Michael Darden | West Hawaii Today


The most difficult decision facing some teenagers could be what new CDs to purchase or what clothes to wear the next day. Others face a more grim reality.

For Alice Morgan, it was finding a place to sleep and then sleeping with an eye out for danger. The 21-year-old Hilo resident never imagined she would be living on the streets at 14, nor did she dream people would look at her with contempt and treat her like a leper.

"That was not how I imagined my life. All I wanted was to get a place, get a car and graduate from high school, but it's really hard for a child to do that," Morgan said. "People just don't trust you. They think you're out to get them, and they just judge you right away."

Then she met Huellyn Whitford, youth development division director for Family Support Services of West Hawaii. Through the organization's Transitional Living Program, Morgan learned what services and resources were available to her. She learned how she could get help.

"(Whitford) helped me set goals for myself, made me believe in myself," Morgan said. "Even though I didn't get into housing or anything like that, she was very helpful to me. And when you get turned away so many times, you don't take any help for granted."

Getting help

TLPs are designed for homeless youths ages 16 to 21 who are without family support. This can include youths who are too old for the foster care system, have been kicked out by their parents or are runaways. TLP participants may be living in group homes, apartments or on the streets.

"TLPs are for young people who need to learn the skills for successful adult living and can't get that support from their own family," said Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network, a statewide coalition of more than 50 youth-serving agencies that partners with four organizations to provide the TLP for Underserved Street Youth.

"If you are 18 and have just exited foster care, you are expected to support yourself financially, manage your own home or apartment, medical health, time and job," Clark said. "Most of us are not ready to do that at 18. TLPs help provide those skills."

With a $500,000 grant-in-aid recently released by Gov. Linda Lingle, Hawaii Youth Services Network and its partners -- Hale Kipa (Oahu), Maui Youth and Family Services, Family Support Services of West Hawaii (Kailua-Kona) and the Salvation Army (Hilo) -- will be able to expand the program to help even more Hawaii youth.

The program was initially financed through a five-year federal grant of $200,000 -- divided among the four agencies -- first awarded to Hawaii Youth Services Network in 2003. The money was to supplement what the state and county were doing and could only be used to serve youth not in the court, mental health or foster care systems.

Clark estimated the state funding would allow the organizations to help an additional 125 youth statewide. While this is the first time the state has granted money to Hawaii Youth Services Network for the program and it is only one-time funding, Clark said she will seek future state assistance.

Help at home

Morgan slept on the beaches of Magic Sands Beach Park or the grassy area across from Lava Java on Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona for nearly two years. Even though she was working, with West Hawaii's high rental costs she could not afford a place to live.

"I would just sleep on the beach, or on the bench, or I'd sleep in the lifeguard stand. That was my favorite spot," she said. "I'd usually hang out in town all day if I didn't have to work. I walked everywhere, hitched everywhere. I didn't have anything, just my backpack of clothes."

There are many youths like Morgan in West Hawaii, and they can be seen around Kailua Village on Alii Drive. Some are street identified, meaning they have a place to sleep at night but they stay out all day and do not return home until late, Clark said. Then you have those who have been camping on beaches for years.

"Kona has a lot of isolated places where people can go and not be real visible," she said. "The ones who have been on the street a long time learn to blend in so they don't attract the notice of the police."

While there is a larger homeless youth population on Oahu, the need is just as great, if not greater, on the neighbor islands, as there are fewer resources and services available, Clark said.

In West Hawaii, the only group homes available to youths are crisis homes administered by Child and Family Services, and there are no emergency shelters, Whitford said. At this time, there is no place for homeless youth in West Hawaii, she added.

Family Support Services of West Hawaii, while not able to provide shelter, works with these target populations.

In addition to providing access to other services, case managers counsel youths, provide hygienic products, food and clothing to homeless, runaways and at-risk youth.

"When kids run away, it's for a reason. It's not just because they had a disagreement with mom and dad," Whitford said.

These reasons can include physical, mental or sexual abuse, or substance abuse within the family or themselves.

However they got there, once on the street, youths are at risk for even more problems, such as assault, rape, drugs and violence. Whitford said through the TLPs and outreach programs, they work with 10 to 12 youths on the street.

"We work hard to establish a relationship with kids who are pretty untrusting, and it takes a long time to do that. We let them know we're there to support them. We help them find jobs, learn how to fill out a resume, what it entails to have a job and keep a job, help develop their social skills," Whitford said.

For Morgan, it was just knowing someone else cared. She now rents a room in Hilo, where she lives with her two young children. Morgan is earning her Certified Nursing Assistant certification and plans to begin college in January.

"I'm trying, but I still have a way to go, but I'm going to make it. I believe in myself a little more now," she said. "Homelessness is a big problem with teenagers. They need some guidance really badly. They need open arms because if they don't have that, they're going to keep jumping around to the wrong people. They need to learn they only have one childhood and they need to take advantage of it."