Homeless Shelters Should Be a Place to Heal

homeless shelter

When my husband’s father died in 2008, life quickly unraveled. He and his younger brother, Wesley, were quickly displaced from their homes. For a little while he slept at friends’ houses, but it was a short-term solution that couldn’t prevent homelessness. He rotated beds between park benches, couches, and sneaking into my bedroom window at night. Poverty, violence and trauma were both a precursor, as well as a result of his homelessness.

I was a senior in high school, and my soon-to-be-husband, Thomas, was 19 years old. He was homeless and sleeping in Kapolei Community Park. I was meeting him for breakfast nearly every day for 6 months. I’d knock on the car window of another homeless family – a disabled veteran, and the father of three close friends I went to high school with. They all lived together in a cramped car. Each morning, we’d chat and wait for Thomas to clean up in the bathroom before heading to Burger King.

Introduction to Hale Kipa

One morning, before 7am, we were approached by an outreach worker from Hale Kipa – the House of Friendliness. She asked us how old we were, why we were out at this hour, and if we were homeless. She asked us if we lived in any of these cars lined up in that parking lot.

With a business card, and directions to YO!, an outreach center for homeless and runaway youth, Thomas began his journey toward healing from the trauma, emotional and physical pain of living on the streets.

At YO!, we both accessed hot meals, a food pantry, a computer lab, and even a health clinic. Having just turned 18, I was uninsured. The health clinic enabled me to finally get medication while sick, and a variety of other medical needs assessed.

Shortly after that, Thomas was housed through Hale Kipa’s transitional living program IMUA KAKOU, meaning “moving forward together.” According to Hale Kipa, their “group homes have a relatively stable population, with participants staying anywhere from six months to two years. Using the example above, in a given month, at an eight-bed program, there may be five or six youth staying for an extended period of time.”

A Focus on Community

What struck me most about Hale Kipa was their focus on community and a sense of family. In fact, Hale Kipa strongly advocates for this. They believe “youth placed in these programs do not need to be locked away from the community. Instead, they need a safe place to live and learn the skills necessary to return to their families or to live independently. The best environment in which to succeed is a natural setting in a normal community. Communities play a critical role in creating the best environment for success.”

Until around his 22nd birthday, Thomas lived with other young people in a shared house at the Ewa Beach location. Placed among peers in a community he knew was a crucial part of his return normalcy. He also met his best friend in that house, nearly 10 years ago. At that time, my home life was not very stable either. I spent quite a bit of time in that house playing games and eating meals there.

I greatly attribute our privileges, successes, and ability to survive to Hale Kipa. Even more so for Thomas. It is very possible he could have remained homeless for a much longer period than he did. And that experience could have impacted his future more than it already does. He could have been jailed, could have disappeared, even worse, he could be dead. Fortunately, none of that happened.

Instead, Thomas got his foot in the door as a special needs assistant at a local elementary school. Shortly after, he enrolled at Kapiolani Community College to study psychology. He saved money for two years, and when we were ready, we moved in together.

Not All Shelters Are Made Equal

Our history with homelessness didn’t end with Hale Kipa. It happened a second time eight years later. This was another deliberating event – doubled rent, a tyrannical landlord, and nowhere to go. I’m not sure how we would have survived homelessness a second time without our experience with Hale Kipa.

While we’ve experienced a variety of different shelters and homeless providers, none have compared to Hale Kipa. We’ve been to shelters that felt like prisons. We’ve also been to shelters where staff felt like family.

In New York City shelters, you walk through a metal detector several times a day. At Hale Kipa, there aren’t any metal detectors. Instead, we’d willingly gather each night to cook dinner together, as a family. We’d play video games together, and stay up late, sitting on the porch outside together. Clearly, not all shelters are made equal.

Compassion Goes a Long Way

Feeling a sense of community or familial support is crucial, especially when you’re not getting it elsewhere. Shelters should be a place to heal. The trauma, emotional and physical pain that comes with homelessness can only be addressed by employing love and compassion. We lift and even carry our loved ones in their time of need. We must do the same, if not more, for the homeless. If we want them rise, we must lend a hand, an ear, and most importantly, a heart.

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Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at https://ko-fi.com/scartissueproject

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