LEAD Homeless Program Logs First Success Story on Maui

September 20, 2019, 7:34 PM HST · Updated September 20, 7:39 PM
Wendy Osher · 0 Comments
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LEAD Homeless Program Logs First Success Story on Maui
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A new pilot program for homeless on Maui is taking a proactive approach to divert individuals from jail and prosecution.

The Maui Police Department’s LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program is trying to address Maui’s homeless population by redirecting low-level offenders to community-based services.

The program helped former inmate Susan Capobianco get off the street, back on her feet, away from substance abuse, and regain custody of her teenage children.  She’s now planning a big move to the mainland.

No Longer An Inmate, No Place to Call Home:

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On Sept. 11, 2018, Susan Capobianco became a free woman; but freedom, she found, came with a price.  Maui was under a tropical storm warning amid the approach of Hurricane Olivia–and the shelter where she sought help could only offer her sleeping bag until paperwork was completed.

“First of all, it’s terrifying when you’re going into jail, but it’s scary when you’re coming out too. Because when I walked through the fence (at Maui Community Correctional Center), you know on that last day… I had no place to go, didn’t have a home… I had no clothing, I had no food, I had no money. I had absolutely nothing. It’s terrifying,” said Susan Capobianco.

The impending storm and inclement weather added another level of frustration to an unfamiliar process.

“I couldn’t even go to the EBT office bright and early to try and get food stamps or anything—even shelter. I went to Family Life Center, but they told me there’s a big long process for that now. So they couldn’t help me,” she said.

Susan explained that there was a woman at the center who offered her a sleeping bag, some clothes and a “little bit of food,” which she accepted.

“From there, I went to Lahaina to go to the Lahaina shelter because I didn’t know where else to go or where I was going to sleep that night. And again, they couldn’t really help because there’s a bunch of paper work, and it’s a process too,” said Susan.

“I ended up staying at the bottom of the hill in a field there. I called it the five star jungle gym because I would hide up there… because the sprinklers are everywhere else and so are other homeless people,” she said.

“I wasn’t comfortable being homeless,” but, Susan said, she made do with what little she had to survive.

Caseworker Steps In: Duality of Mental Health & Substance Abuse

At one point, Susan was introduced to Lori Naluai, an outreach social worker with LEAD.  “She is like my savior, my guardian angel,” said Susan.

“Getting into the shelter—there’s paperwork and processes and you need copies of things that I didn’t have all of. And she just stepped in and helped me so much. Like I needed a certain piece of paper that said that I was actually homeless to be able to get in. She’d make a phone call and it would be faxed over,” said Susan.

“It’s really, really difficult to pick yourself up… Not having a job or transportation or something to wear—it’s just, it’s like a catch-22 almost. You need one to get to the other,” Susan explained.

Naluai, who has been doing outreach for about 15 years now for Mental Health Kōkua, has been working on getting certain participants to step into this new program.

“It’s not a program that we can automatically meet up with someone and bring that person in right away.  It’s going to take some time.  Every individual is different.  Every level of care is going to be different.  You are dealing with mental health and substance abuse. Most of our consumers that we work with have dual,” said Naluai.

“Every day is a check in.  Every day is a contact.  Keeping them at that level to maintain their goals.  But working as a team and having the help and the support from the officers with this LEAD program is something that I’ve never seen before, that is literally working.”

Setbacks: Life at a Shelter and the Revolving Door

After finding shelter and settling in, the challenges of living in unfamiliar surroundings was apparent. “Unfortunately, I had some setbacks,” said Susan.

“I had just gotten a little bit of clothing, you know—got my bearings straight. I had food. I had help getting you know my food stamps I needed, ID, building up my life again,” said Susan.

“It was so hard because staying in the dorms at the shelter is not that much different than staying in jail with other people in a cell. Because you know everybody has different personalities,” she said.

“If you’re trying to be good, and you’re trying to you know, do what you’re supposed to do and be on track and work with probation and all that—having alcoholics walk in and start fights in the middle of the night and you know, just all this turmoil… I ended up getting kicked out because another woman and I had a confrontation,” said Susan.  “Right then and there, I’m homeless again.”

Setting Goals, Looking at the Bigger Picture:

“Really, the only thing that was going to keep me out of jail was getting my kids back. That was my most important thing to me—the most important thing. I knew if I messed up, if I was tempted into doing anything, or just you know I would lose, I would never get my kids back,” said Susan, who is a mother of two young teenagers.

When she was incarcerated, it was her older, adult daughter, who served as a foster mom for her younger kids.

“I just do not want to mess up for their sake. I had a very limited amount of time to be able to get them back by accomplishing certain goals to meet the wider picture—the ultimate goal of getting them,” said Susan.

“If it wasn’t for Lori (who) came to me and told me about this plan—this program called LEAD… and brought me to a place, a safe haven, where I was put into a room—with a bed… I can’t tell you what a relief that is,” said Susan.

“Having a place to actually be—to wake up, to collect your bearings and your needs and you know shower—is incredible,” she said.  “I don’t believe I probably would’ve gotten as far as did without this program. But I tell you, from there, it wasn’t like I was just given the room. I was given the support like daily almost. It was like every time I turn around, every time I had a problem, every time—I mean even if it was just to fill out paperwork for like applications, it could be so overbearing and overwhelming.

How the Program Works:

Maui Police Sergeant Jan Pontanilla, who serves as the coordinator of the LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program explained that it started in Seattle and now there are about 33 states that are participating.

The Maui program started as a pilot project four months ago, and Oʻahu participates as well.

The program actually falls under the department’s CORE (Critical Outreach and Response through Education) division.  “If you could imagine an umbrella, CORE would be the umbrella.  You have CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) which is for the mental illness and substance abuse.  Also, you have our active shooter portion.  And then you have LEAD now.”

“How lead works here is I have a social worker attached to me,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.  “We do the rapport building together.  We have three beds currently designated under LEAD at Mental Health Kōkua.  And we have three beds designated under LEAD at Ka Hale A Ke Ola, which is our shelter.”

Once the LEAD program was launched officers said they quickly realized that individuals seeking help required more than a roof over their heads.  Many were also dealing with mental health or substance abuse in addition to homelessness, according to Sgt. Pontanilla.

In Susan’s case, she first received help through Mental Health Kōkua.  “Once stabilized and ready to go… she was able to transition from the LEAD bed at Mental Health Kōkua to Ka Hale A Ke Ola shelter where she could continue her goals,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

With every individual going through the program, goals are established and monitored to ensure clients are progressing.

“LEAD pays for about 30 days worth of the bed; however, if they’re not meeting their goals yet–like in Susan’s case, she was constantly achieving her small goals here and there–we’re not just going to drop her after 30 days,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.  “If she is consistently doing well, we can justify keeping her longer than that, and which we have,” she said.

Susan’s ultimate goal was to get back to Massachusetts with her children. “She got her children back. So her last goal would be to get back home to her support back in the continental United States,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

Right now, the LEAD designated beds at Mental Health Kōkua are filled.  “Hopefully we can extend or get more beds after showing that it works.  Because it’s an issue having beds.  Bed space is always an issue even at the shelters.  So having a designated bed for that individual is key,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

Reducing Emergency Response, Helping with Stability

LEAD is currently assisting five individuals, with referrals coming in from probation, the courts and outreach services.

“It doesn’t seem much, but when you count all the cases that they’ve had, all the dealings with police.  And not only police.  When they go to the ER (emergency room), when now they go to the court system, now they go to MCCC (Maui Community Correctional Center).  So all these resources for just this one individual,” said Sgt. Pontanilla, but the handful she said, “do make a major impact if they’re willing to participate.”

“It’s voluntary.  We’re actually working with prosecuting attorney Don Guzman and trying to get LEAD (it’s evolving constantly, so trying to get it to how the mainland does it where they handle misdemeanor crimes, along with where it’s almost like a drug court, but it’s more a homeless court that they’re trying to establish here,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

Police also use their own stats to determine how many involvements a prospective client has had with police.  Sgt. Pontanilla posted the question, “How can I help reduce the amount of involvements to divert them from the judicial system and having patrol constantly go out there for these individuals.  How can we help?”

Another client that is being assisted through the LEAD program has been homeless for 30 years now.  The client, who police did not identify, is currently in a LEAD designated bed at Mental Health Kōkua and suffers from both schizophrenia and substance abuse.

“She has had 250 involvements with police–since, if you wanted to look at the time frames, it was 2010 to now.  She has had 47 arrests,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.  “But since LEAD, she started around May-ish, we have zero encounters with police for that individual.”

Funding is provided through ADAD (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division, State of Hawai‘i Department of Health) with Mental Health Kōkua beds.  Police note that Ka Hale A Ke Ola comes under the county jurisdiction and can tap into ʻOhana Zone funding.

“So we’re hoping we can show the success rates and how much it is impacting our resources–our first responders having to go, medics and everything like that–will justify keeping it,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

Rewards of the job:

“As the police side, Iv’e never had to do anything like this where I’m walking around with a social working and having to work with these individuals.  I love them.  They’re awesome,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

“I put myself in their shoes.  I try to sit at waiting for EBT, you know.  I try to go at whatever they have to work with.  And like Susan was saying, it is frustrating because I’m sitting there, day after day with this individual that has mental illness and is still waiting in the line to get at least something–an application filled out,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

“I can do that myself. I can go there and make sure that stuff is done, but when you have a mental illness that may be preventing you from completing a form and actually sitting hours at a time and waiting ’til your turn is called, it’s frustrating and people give up… And I can see the frustration there,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

“Just having to put your self in their shoes makes a lot of difference and humbling yourself to realize that everyone–we’re all human…  And everyone makes mistakes, but if that was your family member that is having a hard time and struggling, I would like for someone else to help them too. So I try to remind myself of that,” said Sgt. Pontanilla.

“Once she understood that we were there to help, we worked with her every single day and I got to know two of her kids.  And almost I feel like family you know kind of in a way.  So just being there for her made me realize that.

From the social work perspective, there is also lots of satisfaction that comes with helping those in need.

“It’s a struggle being homeless out there.  And doing outreach, trusting us and then trusting the police officers is something that’s working really well together as a team,” said Naluai.

“I love this job. And I wouldn’t do any other job. And the people that I work with and help us to get to that.  The client’s goals, our consumer’s goals is very satisfying for us. Taking them out of homelessness and seeing them step up from their struggles–whether it’s mental health or substance abuse and getting their kids back– a big one–very satisfying for us,” said Naluai.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel:

Susan described her turning point and overcoming obstacles as she forges a path towards independence.

“And all these agencies, they always need a little something extra, or they need some kind of proof of this. And it’s really, it’s hard not to just want to give up sometimes because… you turn around and then you bump into people that you knew that you have met in jail and they’re going through the same thing, but they aren’t even really trying. And they’re like ‘Come on, let’s just go you know have a drink and just don’t worry about it. Just for today you know… and just go smoke.’ And it’s just like, when you’re completely lost and you feel like that hopeless feeling, I mean, that’s all you really want to do,” she said.

“But now, not only was I given a chance, and I could get my kids back, but I have these people who are helping me, so much so, like a support group, like a family, like probably more than my family ever has. It’s like not only am I not going to let my children down or myself down, now I’m not going to let these guys running LEAD down either because they’ve already put so much into me and they’re counting on me to accomplish what my goals as much as I am. So it’s like you know, I felt like a kid not wanting to disappoint parents,” said Susan.

“After a lot of effort and accomplishing all of the smaller goals and classes and things I needed to accomplish and staying clean and sober—which, you know, having a place to be and people around you all the time, makes that a lot easier. Then, I just recently got my kids back finally because I was in a unit. LEAD put me into a unit over at the shelter where I could establish I guess ground rules and stuff for transformation over to like a regular unit, which is what I needed to have my kids. They put me in a unit where they helped with my-they helped pay for anything that I needed for rent, for you know I mean gosh, I feel like if I needed laundry soap, they were there. Just for every little thing. I had nothing to be… I didn’t have anything to worry about,” said Susan.

“I was confident for the first time in so many years, that I could do this, because I had their support. Iv’e never had that before and I’ve tried to you know, take my family, go back east and be with my friends and family back—I just have never had the strength, the break maybe, the luck, the determination—whatever it is, I just… This is really LEAD has really helped,” said Susan.

“And so, I went into a unit, I got my kids back recently… It’s been a really incredible reunion. And LEAD has been right by my side for the whole thing. And so the next goal is I want to take my kids back east to Massachusetts where my family is and let them meet their family and experience the different seasons and build a snowman. I want to build a snowman with my kids, and this has been like a dream,” said Susan.

“It just always seemed so far away and it just always seemed so unreachable. And there was just always something in the way or something that I couldn’t accomplish myself because I just didn’t have the connections or the help to do it,” said Susan.

“I can honestly say, there a lot of things that are just hard to—in the system—there’s a lot of loose ends that (I don’t know how to put it but) things that are just hard to accomplish to get to a certain goal. Not only have I learned a lot through them, but because of them, and with them you know, I feel a lot stronger. I’m not afraid of going back east. I know I have family there, but starting all over again there, it’s not as terrifying to me now because I did it here,” said Susan.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served nearly 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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