At 2 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, the teens in the Residential Youth Empowerment and Services program had just finished their music therapy class. Inside the mint-green building, young people cook up a late lunch on the stove and relax on overstuffed sofas.
Located at the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, RYSE began in 2018 as the state’s first emergency shelter for youth ages 14-24. Following the recent passage of Law 130, Hawaii can expect to see similar spaces emerge in the years to come.
Bill 130 directs the Department of Social Services to develop the Youth Safe Spaces pilot program. The program aims to create shelters that provide homeless youth with basic resources ranging from overnight accommodation to 24/7 medical and mental health services. DHS has $600,000 to create the program over the next three years and contracting with local nonprofits that are already supporting homeless youth.
Priti “Maya” Tayal, director of community programs at Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Inc., emphasized the importance of serving older youth, ages 14-24, in the pilot program. Most young people coming out of the foster care system and entering adulthood lack the resources and skills to find housing and become self-sufficient, she explained.
By getting young people off the streets and providing them with safe living spaces, the pilot program helps them avoid arrest for state offenses, such as violating the 10 p.m. curfew, the senator said. Joy San Buenaventura. The program will also address concerns about human trafficking by preventing young people from congregating in spaces where they are most vulnerable, she added.
“We want them to be able to be transported to a youth shelter and not be mixed with adults who are better able to fend for themselves and not be subject to inducements and human trafficking” , said San Buenaventura.
The law builds on the continued efforts of local organizations and previously introduced legislation. As early as 2013, Hawaii Children and Youth Summit attendees identified the importance of supporting homeless youth to reduce contact with the juvenile justice system, said Judith Clark, executive director of the Hawaii Youth Services Network.
Over the next several years, Clark and other advocates worked to bring Hawaii into the National Safe Places Network, which relies on local organizations and providers to provide round-the-clock services to homeless youth in crisis.
“It takes a whole village to raise a child,” Clark said. “We are increasing the connectivity of these villages, giving children more places and people they can contact when they need to.”
Although legislation to include Hawaii in the Safe Places Network was never enacted, Clark hopes DHS will incorporate aspects of the national program into the Bill 130 pilot program. She added that initiatives to better support homeless youth are already underway.
Yet Hawaii continues to face a shortage of centers that can accommodate homeless youth. According to data from the Demonstration program for homeless youthHawaii had 222 unaccompanied youth in homeless shelters or on the streets in 2020.
Hale’ Opio provides comprehensive services to homeless youth – but, due to limited funding, it can only operate as a drop-in centre. No facility in Kauai currently offers 24/7 services to young people, forcing those in crisis to seek help at community hospitals, Tayal said.
RYSE is one of the few organizations currently equipped to provide round-the-clock supervision and emergency housing, making it a potential nonprofit that could collaborate with DHS, San Buenaventura said.
In an emailed statement, DHS said it would hold discussions with community stakeholders as part of planning for the pilot program’s implementation.
“The Safe Spaces for Youth pilot program will build on the department’s recent efforts, which include the development of the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center in Windward Oahu,” DHS said.
RYSE is one of many programs at the Kawailoa Youth and Family Wellness Center, Carla Houser said. The executive director of RYSE said her organization would welcome funding from Bill 130 to maintain its programs. However, Houser added, DHS has yet to contact RYSE about a potential partnership.
RYSE is no stranger to working with state agencies. The program first received funding in 2018, a three-year “Ohana Zone” contract dedicated to reducing homelessness in Hawaii. RYSE then developed programs ranging from financial education classes to care coordination services supporting youth from across the state to visit the Kailua Center.
Tim, 17 at RYSE, is currently taking GED courses from The Learning Center. He added that with the support of RYSE counselors, he learned to navigate the job application process while expanding his understanding of what he can accomplish in the years to come.
“If you’re willing to meet them halfway, they’ll meet you and help you as much as they can,” he said.
But public funding has recently dried up for RYSE. Funding for the Ohana area expired in 2021, and the state chose not to renew the money amid the pandemic. RYSE currently relies on community fundraisers and financial support from private foundations, Houser said.
Houser has mixed feelings about Bill 130. Creating the pilot program may not have been necessary, given that RYSE already offers all of the youth services required by law, Houser said. But, she added, Bill 130 provides a new opportunity to expand RYSE’s programs across the state, allowing the organization to serve youth in their own communities.
“I would have liked to see the state be prouder because the state has worked very hard to provide these ‘Ohana Zone’ emergency proclamation funds from the governor’s office and take a direct interest in the work that is happening. is being produced because of it,” Houser said. “What I love about this bill is that it has the potential to support outer islands and support others doing the same work.”
Donovan, a 17-year-old currently residing at RYSE, said he welcomes the creation of the state pilot program. His favorite part of RYSE, he added, is just having someone who knows him and cares about him.
“This place is amazing. It really is a net for people,” he said. “We should definitely be more sympathetic to these people and at least give something because right now we’re not doing much.”
“Struggling to get by» is part of our series on «Hawaii’s Changing Economywhich is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.