FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Satosy Santa inside his cubicle at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kakaako. He works part-time as a security guard but still lives in the shelter, unable to afford Hawaii's high cost of housing. CLICK FOR LARGE
Working and Homeless
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SATOSY SANTA, 63, has a dream.
He moved to Honolulu, seeking health care and following in the steps of his grown daughter, hoping to one day work full-time here and to be able to rent a home to provide for his family.
A native of Chuuk in Micronesia, Santa worked for 15 years in the fire and police department there, rising as high as second in command, but hasn't been able to transfer those skills into a law-enforcement job in Hawaii.
He now works part-time as a security guard for American Guard in Honolulu, and lives full-time at the Next Door homeless shelter in Kakaako. He's been there pretty much since the day the shelter opened a year ago.
"I'd like to find a job in the fire or police department," he said. "This is what I know, and this is what I like, to combat crime."
Last year, more than a quarter of the homeless living in state shelters were employed, 11 percent part-time and 17 percent full-time, according to the 2006 Homeless Service Utilization Report by the University of Hawaii's Center on the Family.
On neighbor islands, the percentage of working homeless was even higher.
Despite having the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, Hawaii has the fourth-highest rate of homelessness per capita, according to a recent study.
Homeless service providers say this is not surprising, given that the bulk of available jobs are minimum wage, and do not provide enough for rents averaging above $1,000 a month, compounded by the high cost of living in Hawaii.
While many homeless people here are unemployed because of disability, mental illness or other social issues, there are others who rise each morning from their shelter beds, beach tents or parks to go to work.
A total of 74 out of 215 adults at Next Step -- or more than 30 percent of the residents -- are employed, according to data from the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, the lead agency running the shelter.
Next Door shelter manager Utu Langi said residents there work a gamut of jobs, from driving commercial trucks to busing tables in restaurants, and doing yard work for landscaping companies.
"Unfortunately, they work the kind of jobs that can only pay so much," said Langi. "But it helps some of the folks begin to save to get their own housing."
Many shelter residents prefer not to disclose their homeless status to their employers because of the stigma attached.
Langi said skills training for higher-paying jobs is key.
"That is, to me, one of the pieces of the puzzle," he said. "If we're going to solve homelessness, we need to train these guys in skills so they can go out and get a job and be self-sustainable."
He said non-profit groups have brought job assistance programs to the shelter. The state offers job assistance programs, as well, ranging from First-to-Work to SEE Hawaii Work.
"What's happening more and more is you have a family where they both work," said Darlene Hein, program coordinator for the Waikiki Health Center Care-A-Van. "They have six kids and live in a one-bedroom apartment."
Then -- as the scenario typically unfolds -- they get notice that their rent is increasing beyond their budget, and a desperate hunt for another apartment comes up empty.
The number of affordable rentals is still inadequate, said Hein, and shrinking as many developers convert to condominiums or time-shares.
Hein said many of the homeless work odd jobs in the underground economy rather than in the regular 9-to-5 world, and it's even tougher when you're on the streets.
Michael Ullman, a homeless services consultant who worked on the 2006 utilization report said an increasing number of Micronesians, such as Santa, are now living in shelters.
Many times, they will have a home with more than three families under the roof, and some of the members will go to a shelter in order to get on an affordable housing waiting list.
In Santa's case, his daughter's studio is simply too small to share, along with her young children.
Santa's nephew, Kerk, also stays at the shelter, with his wife and three young children. He works full-time as a runner and prep cook at California Pizza Kitchen.
Many Micronesians come to Hawaii seeking health care, provided by the U.S. government under the Compact of Free Association.
Ullman himself does not believe that building more shelters is the solution.
"A lot of cities like Chicago don't build shelters because they realize it's a failed solution," he said. "Move them directly into housing and provide them with support. Either give them some assistance for rent, or a tax break to pay for rent. Building shelters only creates more homelessness."
But Santa says he's grateful for the Next Step shelter. "Because I have no place else to go," he said.