Connie Mitchell, Executive Director, Institute for Human Services
Since opening 30 years ago, the Institute for Human Services (IHS) has grown from serving 60 people a day, to hundreds in two shelters. These days, IHS sleeps more than 350 guests nightly and serves up to 7,000 meals a week. Executive Director Connie Mitchell – a psychiatric nurse by training – sat down with us to talk about Hawaii’s growing homeless population.
photo by Olivier Koning
Q: Hawaii's homeless population at last count was 6,500. Is it growing?
A: There’s definitely a growing number of homeless people, particularly in the Leeward and North Shore areas of Oahu. Many have been priced out of their rental homes by the boom in the local real estate market. So one of the solutions is affordable rentals which many entities, both public and private, are actively trying to do. Together, we’ve helped to decrease the numbers of chronically homeless on our streets in urban Honolulu and I think we can continue to partner to do the same for other groups of homeless folks across the State.
Q: Where do they stay?
A: IHS operates two shelters in urban Honolulu. One for single men, another for single women and for families with children. There is another shelter [run by other groups] in Waianae, two in Kapolei, one in Waipahu, one on the North Shore and one in Kakaako. Maui and the Big Island have one, and Kauai is starting one.
Q: What has been your biggest lesson since joining IHS?
A: Every homeless person has a different story, so it’s important to recognize and develop a plan around those differences. There’s a group of people who, because of their lack of skills, can’t afford jobs that pay more. Some have literacy or education issues, or they’re in domestic-violence situations. Other people had jobs
but fell into substance abuse.
Q: Among the groups you mentioned, exactly who are these people?
A: It’s hard to sort out homelessness. There are people migrating from the Mainland, particularly during the cold months of the year. Many come seeking refuge from the cold, because they have heard we have a lot of homeless services.
We have people from Micronesia coming to Hawaii because our federal government has pledged to help them. They come with little resources. That’s one group that has been using shelter services, and they’re adding to the numbers. I respect that people are free to move around the U.S. But people are surprised by Hawaii’s cost of living, and they suddenly find themselves homeless.
Q: Do you see more homelessness among future veterans?
A: We’ve been at war in Iraq for five years. A lot of people who have been there on many deployments feel the impact. We need to prepare and support returned veterans so that they don’t end up homeless. Usually, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) doesn’t really hit until a couple of years later. Not everybody has PTSD, but it has been a problem. You don’t want to wait until we have a lot of homeless veterans, or a lot of families who break up, because of what they’re experiencing. We need to anticipate what might happen so we don’t end up with severe outcomes. .
Q: Be more proactive, in other words.
A: Yes. We talk about putting up new shelters, but what are we doing? It’s really about planning and anticipating needs. With the Micronesian situation, if people had said, “There seems to be a lot of people coming. We need to find a way to help these people integrate into our community,” We’d be a lot farther ahead in the game.
Q: What is IHS doing?
A: This year, we’ve doubled our capacity at our family shelters. We were serving about 20 families. Now, we’re serving 25 in-house, plus 20 more on our waiting list. We’re able to help people before they go into the shelter, make applications for housing and jobs. Last year, we started a community re-entry program at our men’s shelter for those who find themselves homeless after coming out of jail. We try to give the men structure and resources for finding work.
Q: Any changes at the women's shelter?
A: We’ve increased our women’s capacity from 60 to 100 just this past fall. I’m most excited, though, about IHS’ new employment program. We look at people’s incomes when they first enter the shelter, or help them find jobs if they’re not working. We look at their incomes again when they leave. I’ve been trying to communicate to our shelter guests that we think they can do better than IHS. Some people have been staying here for quite a long time.
Q: What's "quite a long time?"
A: Not a lot of them, but some of them have been here for three years. I just sent one man an aloha letter saying, “I think you really need to find another way of living.” We’ve offered to help him with different things, but he’s refused. If they don’t want our help, maybe this is not the right place for them. For most folks, we try to target three months, which allows them to get a job. Our case-management program continues to serve people with on-going support, inside and outside of the shelter. We want them to maintain their independence.
Q: What's IHS's annual budget?
A: Six million.
Q: How much is from charity?
A: Last year, 30 percent of our budget came from donations. Seventy percent was through state, federal and city funding. Even if I could get the government to pay for all of our services, I’d still want our community involved.
Q: Have you hired more staff?
A: Yes, about 15 to 20 people. We employ 100. Our shelters are open 24 hours, and we have three shifts.
Q: Monetary donations aside, what can businesses do to help?
A: We’ve had some tour companies and contractors willing to train and support people in reentering the marketplace. I’ve been impressed with the compassion of our community.
Do you like what you read? Subscribe to Hawaii Business Magazine »