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Homeless, Not Hopeless

Safe Haven is a place of refuge for those who find themselves without
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While most of the downtown community has embraced Safe Haven, some have the attitude that Chinatown has enough homelessness, and that Safe Haven is just adding to an already dangerous place.

Located in the historic Edwin Thomas Home at 41 South Beretania is a building that many people in Chinatown know well. Despite popular belief, it’s not a soup kitchen. It’s not a lock-up facility or a jail. It’s home to Safe Haven/Mental Health Kokua–a place where vulnerable people find refuge from homelessness, assault, rape and neglect. They clean up, stay a while and, with the best of luck, they’re back on their feet within days.

The worst-case scenarios, however, look a little different. These are the most at-risk cases, such as one woman who had been beaten every day for years until she finally found the courage to escape to Safe Haven. It’s fair to say that she stayed a little longer than a week. Others who’ve found safety through Safe Haven’s housing and services include those with medical problems and mental illness. In other words, Safe Haven is a portal of entry to housing, treatment and a community of people who care about more than just names and records.

Pamela Menter, project director of Safe Haven, says the community embraced the residence since its inception, and after 15 years in the Chinatown area, she believes it’s a mutual partnership. “We officially adopted Smith-Beretania Park, where our staff and consumers provide weekly cleanups,” she says. “The Downtown Neighborhood Board appreciates our services…and that we’ve considerably reduced the number of homeless and mentally ill in the downtown area.”

Safe Haven offers comprehensive services; a full-time staff of psychiatric, medical and rehabilitative care; pre-vocational training and community placement and reintegration. For around $100 per resident per day, Safe Haven protects people who would otherwise live on the street, and for Menter, that’s an incredibly important part of advocating for those who are mentally incapable of remaining safe in Honolulu.

“What we hope to provide for the ever-increasing number of mental health consumers is education and treatment for their disorders,” she says. “We hope they’ll understand that their illness is treatable and that recovery is possible.”

With public restrooms typically closed to homeless people, Safe Haven provides a place to clean up. The residence has a boutique laden with donated clothes, “styling” services from staff members, makeup lessons and hair services, and each new occupant receives a basket of toiletries with shampoo, soap, towels and a razor. Anything that boosts the residents’ self-esteem seems to be worth as much as the beds they sleep on.

“[We] are the only transitional shelter in Hawaii that specifically targets homeless mentally ill adults,” says Menter. “We’re hoping that with newly developing public, private and community partnerships, that we can expand these services.”

While most of the downtown community has embraced Safe Haven, some have the attitude that Chinatown has enough homelessness, and that Safe Haven is just adding to an already dangerous place. But Menter says that only a very tiny percentage of violence is attributable to this population, adding that their success rate outweighs the naysayers.

“Seventy percent of those who’ve lived at Safe Haven have successfully accessed housing in the community, after stabilizing psychiatrically,” she says. “Every person served [by us] has qualities and strengths which are fostered in their recovery process. But because of the stigma relating to mentally ill individuals, many people unfortunately don’t realize that these people [are seldom] violent.”

Interim CEO Joanne Lundstrom says that they’ve been fortunate to have supporters and advocates who have buffered the initial skeptics, such as Hawaii Pacific University, who in the beginning had some concerns about Safe Haven’s presence in the community and the safety of students. “But over time,” Lundstrom says, “recognition that we provide a valuable service and in fact foster the community’s health and well-being has grown significantly. We’re genuinely encouraged by people’s understanding of this, and by their ever-increasing tolerance and aloha.”

For more information:Safe Haven/Mental Health Kokua, 41 South Beretania St., [mentalhealthkokua.org], 524-7233

Reality Check

* An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older–about one in four adults–suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.

* When applied nationally, this figure translates to 57.7 million people ages 18 and older.

* Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the US and Canada for people ages 15-44.

* Nearly half (45 percent) of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for two or more disorders, with severity strongly related to comorbidity.