Jeff Kaplan


POSTED: Friday, October 30, 2009

They're known as runaways, but throwaways seems a more apt description. They are youths living on the streets of Waikiki, surviving however they can and showing up in increasing numbers at a drop-in center that feeds them, clothes them and gently tries to steer them to a better life.

“;These kids are ... are 'under' everything. They're undereducated, they're underinsured, they're underemployed and, frankly, they're underloved,”; said Jeff Kaplan, 50, a program director for Youth Outreach, a joint project of the Waikiki Health Center and Hale Kipa that provides health and social services programs for homeless and runaway youths.

The number of young people seeking help has surged this year and is on track to reach up to 700 individuals by the end of the year, up from the usual 400 to 500.

“;Around the first of the year, we started seeing more people coming in for hot meals. We were preparing for 40, and we needed enough food for 60,”; said Kaplan. “;We want to make sure that these kids are adequately fed and get enough nutrition, but we're also preventing theft. We don't want them stealing to eat.”;

Kaplan, who has a master's degree in public health from the University of Hawaii, has been with the Waikiki Health Center and YO for 15 years. He works closely with his Hale Kipa counterpart, Alika Campbell, who also holds the title of Youth Outreach program director.

        Youth Outreach, founded in 1989, serves runaway and homeless youths up to age 22. Neither violence nor substance abuse are tolerated on the grounds of the Waikiki safe haven.
        » Where: 415 Keoniana St.
        » When: Drop-in center is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
        » What: Free hot meals and takeout snacks, shower, laundry and locker facilities; medical care, including testing for and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Psychological counseling and help getting into GED classes, job training and transitional housing is available.
        » How to help: YO depends heavily on donations for the meals it serves and the clothes and hygiene products it disperses. To donate, call 942-5858 or check the wish list on the Web site at http://hsblinks.com/16e

QUESTION: A national story in The New York Times this week said the number of runaway teens has surged in the past two years, apparently because of the poor economy. Is that true in Hawaii as well?

ANSWER: We saw an increase early in the year (when the weather was especially cold and rainy) and we continue to see an increase. Is it an absolute result of the economy? I'm not sure. At YO we provide for homeless runaways, and most of these kids are running away from abusive situations at home. Sometimes they are simply out of options, they've been through foster care, incarceration, alternative homes. Very often it's not a runaway situation, it's a throwaway situation, where they have been thrown out of the house and told never to return. ... It's possible that as the economic crisis causes more stress in the home, that leads to more dysfunction, more abuse, and the kid ends up on the street. Whatever the reasons, we are on track for a 20 percent increase this year.

Q: So how many kids is that?

A: In the 21 years that YO has been in service, our numbers had been pretty consistent from year to year. We generally saw about 400 to 500 individuals, and that equates to 5,000 visits over the course of a year. But already this year we have surpassed that, and if this pace keeps up, we are on track to have 6,000 to 7,000 visits this year, or about 700 individuals.

Q: What kinds of problems are these kids fleeing?

A: The classic cases: mostly physical, sexual and emotional abuse. You have to understand that things are really bad at home, if the street seems like a better alternative. The stereotype of a teenager who takes off over curfew, that's not who is living on the street. Those types go home as soon as they miss the creature comforts, which is very quickly.

Q: Are most runaways in Hawaii girls?

A: No, the majority are male. It's about 60 percent males, and about 40 percent females. Males also tend to stay longer on the streets. There are always more people willing to come to the aid of a young female, but oftentimes that “;aid”; is exploitive. The pimps are always out there.

Q: Survival sex, which escalates into formal prostitution, is a reality of life on the streets. The Dallas police department, recognizing that repeat runaways were the most likely to end up controlled by pimps, started an intervention program that seems to be working. Does HPD have anything like that?

A: No, not that I know of. Running away is a status offense. Generally the chronic runaways are put in detention homes, they are incarcerated.

Q: Don't they just run away from the detention home?

A: It's a real revolving door. The detention home is medium to high security, so they are not running away from that per se, but the incarceration is generally short term. So then they return to the foster family or biological family and the behavior will continue and they will run away again. We're the safety net that is very close to the street, for kids who have either given up on the system or the system has given up on them.

Q: What happens to the kids you help after they turn 22?

A: Our goal is to help them transition into something better long before that, and a great many of them do. Our primary function is to provide the most basic services, to help these kids survive — a hot meal, a shower, medical care, a place to feel safe. But beyond those essential services, our ultimate goal is to transition them off the street. We're intensively working with this gap group, ages 18 to 22, because they don't seem to fit in many programs. They have too few job skills, too little education and they don't qualify for youth programs anymore.

Q: What about people who say you should send the kids home?

A: The individuals we're working with, returning home is simply not an option. It's more dangerous at home than it is on the street. We've seen that scenario over and over again. What we're trying to do is keep these kids alive and healthy. We try to keep them connected to society, with some level of adult supervision and the basic needs of life, and establish trusting relationships so that they will listen to the options that are available — essentially provide some support in a world where they haven't had any.

Q: What's your annual budget?

A: For Youth Outreach, it's around $350,000 a year (funded largely by federal, state and private foundation grants).

Q: Is that being cut?

A: Funding for health care education was cut by 50 percent by the (state) Department of Health. There also are some other cuts, and the notification is coming very late. On the upside, we get a lot of community support, especially in regards to in-kind contributions. We serve thousands of hot meals annually and we've never had a food budget. All the food is donated. The Hawaii Foodbank has been helping us quite a bit.

Q: Where are most of the young people from?

A: The vast majority, about 80 percent, are from Oahu, from all over the island. About 10 percent are from the neighbor islands, and the rest are from all over: the mainland, Japan, Samoa, Micronesia. ... Most kids on the street tend to gravitate to Waikiki. ... So many times when we talk about these negative street survival tactics, they say, 'I'm just doing what I gotta do.'