Disabilities further limit scarce housing options

Paraplegic Maui residents Charlotte George Smith and Norman Sher are facing homelessness as the new year approaches.

Smith lost her Kihei condo of 25 years two weeks ago, unable to make the payments, and is currently staying with friends. Sher, who was taken in by an acquaintance after leaving the hospital with no where else to go, will be without housing and on the streets after New Year’s Day following a dispute with the acquaintance.

Housing options for the two elderly residents are limited due to their disabilities and the lack of affordable housing on the island, according to housing officials with the county and nonprofit groups. One nonprofit housing program for low income, elderly and disabled families has a waiting list two to three years long.

Hale Mahaolu, which manages 14 affordable housing properties or about 1,000 rental units in Maui County, has a waiting list of at least 100 people for each property, according to planning documents.

Eileen Miranda, secretary to the executive director of Hale Mahaolu, said Tuesday that people drive to their facilities regularly seeking to rent a condo and don’t realize that there is a waiting list. She said the units are rented out on a first-come, first-serve basis and there are only a few handicapped-accessible units.

“The local people never apply because they wait until something happens, but people from the Mainland come to Hawaii and they apply because they want to come here and retire,” Miranda said. “The local people wait until there’s a need. It’s sad. We do have a lot of local people, but they just wait too long.”

Mahea Goo, assistant manager at the Hale Mahaolu Ekolu elderly facility in Waiehu, said that her facility has only four “ability impaired units” and that nobody has moved out for at least two years.

That puts people like Sher in a difficult place.

“I got nowhere to go,” Sher said from his bed Tuesday in Wailuku.

Celebrating his 71st birthday Tuesday, Sher has few visitors. The former organic fruit seller suffers from scoliosis, spinal stenosis, chronic pain and a laundry list of other ailments due to 40 years of picking and carrying fruit, he said. He has been classified as a paraplegic.

Sher graduated from UCLA and moved from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Maui in 1980. He owned an organic fruit stand in front of the old Suda Store in Kihei for a decade until he was ordered off the property and forced to set up at other places around South Maui.

His years of strenuous manual labor caught up with him a few years ago when his back gave out while walking to a grocery store. He could barely move and became incontinent.

“I was crawling from my futon to the bathroom it hurt so bad,” Sher said.

Sher was hospitalized shortly after the injury and eventually lost his apartment. He was discharged from the hospital about a year ago and was taken in by an acquaintance in Wailuku. They had a falling out, and he will be without shelter Thursday.

“I only have two people that love me,” Sher said. “They are my saviors and my heroes. I have no family here.”

Kim Gayner has helped care for Sher since the end of October, visiting him twice a day for a total of six hours. Gayner said Sher has been “neglected and abused” and has “yelled and run off every care worker” who has tried to help him.

“I figured he just needed a whole lot of TLC and unconditional love and was just pissed off and angry,” Gayner said. “I walked in and that’s what he needed. He needed unconditional love and someone to get and understand him and where he was coming from and why he was so angry.”

While Sher is hoping to find shelter and care somewhere before New Year’s Day, Smith has found refuge with a friend in Kihei after being ousted from her condo. She is looking for a more permanent situation.

Sher, 76, is a polio survivor and has been unable to stand or walk since 10. She graduated from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in physiology and moved to Houston to work at NASA “just as they were opening their first offices” in 1962, she said.

“When I first drove past the site of NASA, it was just a cow pasture,” she recalled. “There were no buildings on it, not even a bulldozer.”

In her time with the aerospace agency, Smith assisted teams in identifying bone demineralization in astronauts who did not get enough exercise and in the the making of space food. She worked for NASA for 26 years and retired to Maui in 1988, later serving as the first chairperson of the Maui County Commission on Persons with Disabilities.

Smith blamed a heavy rainstorm in 2007 that damaged the wheelchair lift to her van for putting her condo unit in financial jeopardy.

“I spent thousands of dollars I didn’t have on attempts to repair it, to no avail,” she said. “I finally junked it last year. A new van would cost many thousands more. I was able to refinance my mortgage on my condo unit, but the monthly maintenance fees proved my undoing.”

Smith lives off her $2,500-a-month pension from NASA that includes health insurance. She has applied for housing at Hale Mahaolu, but her pension exceeds some of the income limits for assisted housing.

“I put myself on the list, and they said beds are not available,” Smith said. “The waiting list I’ve been told is 3 to 3 1/2 years long. That’s quite a gap.”

Jo-Ann Ridao, county director of Housing and Human Concerns, said Monday that the situations of Sher and Smith are “very rare occurrences,” but that she is aware of shortages in affordable housing.

“The increased need we have is for housing in general,” Ridao said. “The whole trend is trying to keep people in the housing environment for as long as possible. I’m not seeing a lot of this kind of situation, but I am seeing a lot of need for housing in general. Maui needs a lot of rental units, and we need to appeal to more housing contractors.”

Ridao recommended that Sher and Smith seek help from the Family Life Center in Kahului or Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Center, which has facilities in Wailuku and Lahaina.

“If there was a hardship, then we could make a special appeal,” Ridao said. “If they’re going to be homeless, on wheelchairs, we would try to prevent that from happening.”

Gayner hopes some agency or person will consider taking in Sher and pledges to continue caring for him daily. Gayner is struggling with her own housing issues and lives in her car with her friend Robert Ponce.

Ponce has tried to look for housing for the three of them, but they could not afford a unit with three bedrooms. He said if no one comes to the aid of Sher, then they will “make it work somehow.”

“Maui’s housing situation is tough. It’s challenging,” Ponce said. “You show up to a place to rent it, and there’s 10 couples there. You have to really jockey for position.”

Gayner is a published author and used to run a homeless youth center in Lake Tahoe, Calif., before moving to Maui. Ponce worked as an immigration defense attorney for 15 years in Portland, Ore., before moving to the island.

“It’s about putting one foot in front of the other,” Ponce said. “If a homeless person can help another person who has a more immediate, drastic need, then what if we all did something? What if somebody did something once. I think it would make a difference.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.

* Disabled housing. Norman Sher, who is disabled, is being evicted from his Wailuku residence today and will be homeless. Anyone who wants to help Sher may call 419-2132 or 463-9040.