Helping the homeless
Program helps youths transition
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."
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
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
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."