Project strives to keep locals in their homes

An important-yet-overlooked aspect of the Kaua’i homeless issue is what’s being done to keep those who have been fortunate enough to secure affordable rental housing in those units.

The short answer is “plenty.”

Legal Aid Society of Hawaii attorneys are looking at expanding their existing, Holistic Legal Services for the Homeless Project with the Homeless Legal Advocacy and Prevention Project (HLAPP), designed to, among other things, prevent those living in public-rental-housing projects from being evicted for nonpayment of rent, causing damage to the rental units, or other issues, explained Greg Meyers, managing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii Kaua’i office.

The eviction-prevention program offers education and potential representation where warranted, he said.

Heads of families might not believe governmental officials when they’re told they are on the verge of eviction, which carries a lifetime ban on ever getting back into the same type of government-assisted housing project, he explained.

But they may tend to believe advocates like Legal Aid attorneys, he noted.

The project is in partnership with leaders of the state Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawaii, who operate state affordable-rental projects in Kapa’a, Kekaha and Koloa.

Tenants are referred to Legal Aid lawyers when they are on the verge of being evicted, Meyers said.

Pending is an application for $50,000 in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant funds, administered by county Offices of Community Assistance Housing Agency leaders, for expansion of the HLAPP program, he said.

If that funding isn’t approved, Meyers said the plan is to partner with officials at Kauai Economic Opportunity, Inc., who are already involved in the Holistic Legal Services for the Homeless Project, to access federal funds for program expansion.

Emiko Ryan, also a Legal Aid Kaua’i attorney, is project coordinator, with Meyers assisting some clients as well.

“We’re looking to expand the project to include homeless prevention,” said Meyers. “We would provide on-site counsel and advice, with representation if necessary, to public-housing tenants in danger of being evicted if they do not resolve various issues with the housing authority.”

The main objectives of HLAPP, Meyers explained, are to stabilize the lives of Kaua’i’s homeless population as families and individuals make the transition from homelessness to independent living, and educate, advise and represent public-housing families on the verge of homelessness and the lifetime ban that follows a public-housing eviction.

According to HCDCH officials, there are 166 families living in HCDCH-run units on Kaua’i. Of those 166 families, about five families each month face eviction if they do not make significant changes, he said.

In addition, HCDCH officials receive approximately 25 applications for housing each month, and 50 percent of them are generally denied, Meyers said.

“Those families in housing need the education and advice of Legal Aid to prevent homelessness, while those whose applications were denied may need our assistance to over-come improper or otherwise explainable problems with their application to ensure they have not lost out on a viable opportunity to end their homelessness,” he said.

Through the HLAPP, attorneys will continue to provide education, outreach, and legal representation to the homeless population in the areas of income maintenance, housing, safety and protection, and familial relationships, he said.

This includes, but is not limited to, accessing welfare or disability benefits, securing housing or fighting an unjust eviction, obtaining proper medical insurance or school services for special-needs children, and drafting powers of attorney or assisting with divorces and custody matters.

Members of the Kauai Continuum of Care Committee have identified legal services as a need for many of those among the island’s estimated homeless population of 600, he noted.

For each family saved from eviction, and each family successfully transitioned from homeless into independent living, that’s two less families, or six to eight less people, living on the beach, relegated to potential crime to survive, he said.

“The long-term benefit to the community rests in a more educated and empowered population,” he said.

The significance on the community, both the low-income community as well as the community at large, should not be underestimated, he continued.

“We believe, as more homeless people are assisted, and more families are kept in their relatively-stable, public-housing units, the community will be positively impacted,” Meyers said.

“First, there will be cleaner beaches and state parks due to less overbearing use of the resources. Second, as homeless families become independent, there tendency toward petty crime will be removed,” he said.

“Third, the more educated the community becomes about issues facing the homeless, the more likely Kaua’i will make progress in ending chronic homelessness.

“Fourth, homeless people will be more likely to take advantage of community resources if tied in with a Legal Aid attorney who can make direct referrals on behalf of the client,” he concluded.

For more information on this project or free legal services on Kaua’i, call 245-4728 and ask for Emiko Ryan.

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