GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Angie pauses for a cigarette and to hug Youth Outreach mascot Starr. The safe house seeks to give temporary shelter and health education to runaway youth on the streets of Waikiki.
An anchor for wayward youth
Hundreds of young runaways find support at a modest Waikiki walk-in
The girl had been living on the streets for about a year when she heard she could get food and help from a drop-in center in Waikiki.
"It is very interesting here at YO's," said Lovey, 20. "I'm talking to others that have as many problems as I do, or a similar situation."
Donations Sought To Help Homeless Youth
The Youth Outreach Project has a "wish list" with the following items:
» Non-perishable and canned foods.
» Perishable foods, including food for the holidays.
» Kitchen utensils and serving ware.
» Camping equipment, such as manual can openers, rain ponchos and sleeping bags.
» Gift certificates and coupons.
» Clothes for teens, including shoes, boots, slippers and sneakers (especially larger sizes).
» Backpacks and baby items.
» Hygiene items.
» Over-the-counter medicines.
» Cleaning supplies and equipment.
» Recreation equipment and educational materials.
» Yard equipment, hand/electric tools
» Musical instruments.
» Computer and printer -- IBM or compatible.
» School and office supplies.
» Van or pickup truck.
» Financial donations.
» Groups to underwrite or provide a hot meal for about 40 people during drop-in-afternoons, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Call 942-5858 for more information or to make donations.
The Youth Outreach Project, known as YO, is operated by the Waikiki Health Center and Hale Kipa Inc. It provides medical, health and social services to runaway and homeless people 21 and under.
Kids run because of physical, mental or sexual abuse, said Jeff Kaplan, who heads the project for the health center. "They can't take it at home any longer."
Some have been as young as 10 or 11, he said. "We've had 12-year-old pregnancies."
Drop-in hours at the facility -- an old three-bedroom cottage leased from the Waikiki Baptist Church -- are from 3 to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"We are making a difference here," Kaplan said.
About 300 to 400 teens drop in each year and "they come approximately 4,000 times," he said.
"They treat it like it's their home. It's the closest they have. They appreciate basic services. Sometimes they just need someone to talk to."
The program served 4,000 meals last year entirely on donations, Kaplan said. Canned and packaged foods also are given to the kids to carry them through until the next hot meal.
"We refer them to other places (to eat), but they're downtown, places kids don't like to go to," he said. "They're living out of a backpack."
After 16 years, the youth project has a reputation for confidentiality and safety.
It provides kids with basic services, including treatment for cuts and bruises, family planning, birth control and minor surgery, laundry and shower facilities, clothing, personal supplies, storage lockers, backpacks, recreation, help finding a place to live, jobs or training and independent living skills.
"We collect mail for them here," Kaplan said. "We have a telephone with a special 'hello line.' If they're applying for a job, we can take a message. We're trying to provide basic needs to help the transition off the street."
The staff also goes to the streets to connect with the kids and supply them with snacks, condoms, first aid, hygiene and other items.
GEORGE F. LEE / GLEE@STARBULLETIN.COM
Youth Outreach counselor Selah Geissler, right, talks about her work in the Waikiki safe house.
Building relationships with the youths is critical in trying to persuade them to adopt more positive options, Kaplan said.
"When they go to jail, we're the first ones they call, and when they get out, this is the first place they come back to. These kids don't have anyone else in their lives -- no one to bail them out."
Lovey said family problems drove her to a street life, but she wants to go back to school and study accounting.
She was employed by the project at the time of the interview, doing maintenance cleaning.
The facility has a small budget to employ three kids six hours a week for landscaping, maintenance, kitchen and food preparation and cleaning service, Kaplan said. They must apply and go through an interview like a regular job and they can earn a reference, he said.
Angie, 19, cleaning YO's clinic as one of its employees, said she began going to the drop-in center in January last year because most of her friends were going there.
She ran away from home at age 13 because her mother was on drugs, she said. She also ran away from a succession of foster homes and dropped out of school as a junior. She hadn't seen her father since she was 12.
A boyfriend, whom she met on the streets, helped her kick a marijuana habit she had since age 15, she said.
Angie said she learned to dance when she was 5 or 6 and she wants to be a choreographer and make music videos.
"Right now I don't have nothing," she said, tears flowing down her cheeks. "But I believe in karma. Things happen for a reason. ... I think I'll make it."
Kaplan, with the program more than 11 years, said the number of runaways in Waikiki "just continues," with issues exacerbated by crystal methamphetamine use.
When he started, he said, the kids were smoking crack and marijuana and drinking alcohol a lot, but no one smoked "ice."
"It is so much more damaging; the effects are lasting," he said. "It definitely is not helping matters, because street culture is violent by nature ...
"They're trying to cope with pain of the street. ... We have kids on the street literally for years," Kaplan said. "They're amazing people in terms of survivors. They're fresh and energetic, just like any other kids. The main difference is they just haven't had any breaks in life."
All are at risk, he said. "They're uneducated, unemployed, uninsured, unsupervised and essentially unloved -- disconnected."
With no skills or work experience, street kids use negative survival strategies that put them more at risk -- "wheeling and dealing, stealing and panhandling or trading sex for drugs or a room for the night," Kaplan said.
Everything is free at the outreach project, but there are basic rules, among them zero tolerance for drugs, alcohol, sexual contact, violence and disrespect.
It's had many successes, Kaplan said, recalling a 20-year-old hard-core alcoholic who "was throwing up all over the bathroom and would try to eat but couldn't keep food down."
He already had liver damage, Kaplan said. "We would find him consistently in little alleys in Waikiki, passed out with a bottle at the end of each hand, looking like a classic skid row individual.
"He was really, really bad, but he would continue to come to us and receive services."
Kaplan said he consistently tried to get the youth into a residential treatment center and he finally agreed if he didn't get treatment, he'd be dead.
He remained clean and sober for 18 months at the treatment center and continued to live there while working full-time and moving into independent living.
"It's just fantastic," Kaplan said. "It's wonderful we were able to hang in with him."
Changes come slowly when working with young people, he said, "and you have to be patient. It is a long, tedious process often."
Kevin Wong, senior outreach worker at YO for about 2 and a half years, said, "Waikiki has a lot of draw" for runaways because "the atmosphere tends to be exciting. There are always new people, a fresh load of tourists every week, a chance to make money."
And kids can band together for protection, he said. "If they're on their own, they're a target for predators, pimps, pedophiles, drug dealers and some tourists that come to town."
They're safer on the streets with other kids than in abusive situations at home, Wong said, "and life on the streets is chaos."
He sees the Youth Outreach Project as "the anchor in their lives ... until chaos sweeps them away again."
Adults in their early 30s have told him they don't know what would have happened to them without the program, Wong said. "They call to see if the place is still here and thank us."
Wong and outreach worker Selah Geissler take turns covering Waikiki streets seven nights a week.
"We make friends and they can talk to us," Geissler said. "We're dealing with basic needs right now and when they're ready, we can deal with the long term."
Alika Campbell, with Hale Kipa for 16 years, said he first went to the youth project to replace someone on a three-month grant. That was 10 years ago.
"I didn't think I could work here, that it would be sad and depressing every day, but I thought I could survive for three months. It turns out, I was very surprised by this, but I really love it. I feel privileged that they allow us to participate in their lives," Campbell said.
There are no big triumphs, Campbell said, but a lot of little successes.
He helps them develop and work on goals, from getting a license to be a truck driver to a general educational development diploma and getting into college. "We do whatever they want. We do a lot of state IDs and birth certificates."
Most have big long-term goals like getting a job and a place to live, he said. But they can't afford housing on a minimum wage so he tries to identify something smaller and more immediate to build positive momentum for the youths, he said.
The Youth Outreach Project is the kind of program that "sows seeds for the future," Campbell said. "We don't usually see what grows from seeds except sometimes they will come back and share with us."
Kaplan said a man appeared at the front door recently who had been at the home 11 years ago and said, "Do you remember me?"
Kaplan remembered he was homeless, lived on the street with a girlfriend, beat her up constantly, was heavily into drugs, loud, unpredictable and "a really difficult client."
The man said he went to the mainland 10 years ago, learned to be a welder and at age 31 has a family and is doing well for himself. He wanted to make sure the outreach project was still here, Kaplan said.
"He said, 'I want to let you know how much you did for me because you were the only guys who never gave up on me. I was such a damn jerk back then. I just want to apologize. Everyone else gave up on me.'"