KAILUA-KONA — Thanksgiving came a week early in Kona, as Hope Services Hawaii hosted the 19th annual Homeless Luncheon and Resource Fair Thursday at the Old Airport Pavilion.
The free lunch was well attended by everyone from homeless individuals and needy families to volunteers and around 30 service providers at what several participants described as one of the most comprehensive community outreach events of the year.
Part of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, the four-hour event included a clothing bank, free haircuts, raffle prizes and perhaps most importantly, connection to a multitude of services ranging from domestic violence outreach to low-income housing information to substance abuse counseling opportunities.
“Last year, we served about 1,800 individuals and families islandwide, and it just keeps growing every single year,” said Malu Debus, volunteer and community partnership coordinator with Hope Services. “We housed 1,094 individuals last year, but homelessness still continues to grow. These events are critical to getting that information that will help these individuals resolve their homeless situations.”
In addition to the luncheon, Hope Services held a summit to end family homelessness Tuesday, which combined the efforts of faith-based initiatives with nonprofit organizations and government sectors. A similar event was held in October, and Debus said 15 families ready to end their homeless situations were identified in Kona, while another 25 were identified in Hilo.
According to numbers released Thursday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, homelessness has decreased in the United States by 14 percent since 2010. Family homelessness has also declined by 23 percent over the last seven years.
Still, Debus said the most recent Point-in-Time Count of the homeless, which was conducted in January, identified 104 unsheltered homeless families on the Big Island alone.
But sometimes, connecting people with services is all it takes to get a family off the street, as many homeless are often unaware of every service available to them.
Organizations like Child Family Services — which offers therapy, crisis outreach and a domestic violence shelter — jumped at the opportunity the luncheon provided to make contact with so many members of what can be an elusive population.
“It’s an awesome experience helping families bridge the gap between domestic violence and moving on with their lives, offering healing and hope for short-term but immediate shelter,” said Rhonda Braxton, with the organization. “This many people at one time, this is the mother lode here.”
T-Rex Corpuz, who earned his nickname from young baseball players he’s helped coach who say he’s like an “old dinosaur” when he gets fired up, was homeless for 10 years.
A graduate of Konawaena High School, Corpuz joined the military to see the world and escape the limited economic opportunities for him on Hawaii Island. But drugs and alcohol caused him problems in later life, eventually putting him on the street.
Corpuz, 62, said he’s been living in a low-rent space at Lokahi Apartments in West Hawaii for going on eight years. Retired, his expenses are supplemented by a monthly check from the military.
“The people who helped me did a very good job, and we’re lucky there are people ready to help,” Corpuz said. “My friends, people I know, I can share the information (I get here) with them about what there is to offer.”
Many who attended the luncheon weren’t actually homeless, but merely in need of one or several services, as the high cost of living puts considerable strain even on those residents of Hawaii Island equipped with the safeguards of shelter and gainful employment.
Ysawa Wajar, Collin Takiah and their 10-month-old daughter Rose came up from the southern tip of the island looking for help finding an affordable living space in Kona.
Wajar works as a dishwasher at Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, but is faced with a daily commute of two hours, which puts a dent in the money he can bring home to support his young family. He and Takiah were already taking advantage of some of the programs highlighted at he luncheon.
“My baby is in that program about family support,” Wajar said. “They help her with a lot of things. They take her to the library where she can have fun.”
“They help us with setting up appointments and transportation because we don’t always have a car,” added Takiah, Rose’s mother.
Finally, the luncheon allowed for networking between providers, who noted they can accomplish more together than alone.
Keera Kanuha, of Child Family Services, cited cooperation between her organization and the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, which recently visited the domestic abuse shelter to speak with some of the residents and plans to help out with the Thanksgiving dinner there.
“This (event) helps us to form relationships with other services, too, and collaborate with how we can work together and reach the community more effectively,” Kanuha said.
The luncheon and resource fair in Kona was just the first of three Hope Services will hold this week. Another is set for today in Hilo at Aunty Sally Kaleohano’s Luau Hale from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
A third is scheduled for Saturday at the Pahoa Community Center at the same time.