Where her heart is

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Monique Yamashita is the executive director of Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers, which aims to break the cycle of homelessness by finding and maintaining permanent housing for its residents.

On the morning of Saturday, Jan. 13, as a false alert warning of an incoming ballistic missile unleashed panic and confusion across the state, Monique Yamashita began filling water jugs at her Wailuku home — while calmly giving instructions over the phone to the on-duty operations director at Ka Hale A Ke Ola (KHAKO) Homeless Resource Centers. “I called to ask if everyone was OK and told him to get all of the residents indoors,” she said. “I wanted to get to the shelter and help, but it was an internal struggle to stay with my family or help the shelter residents.”

Yamashita is the executive director of KHAKO, and the nearly 1,200 men, women and children who stay in the nonprofit organization’s two shelters are always at the forefront of her mind. “Even when I’m not there, I’m thinking about them,” she said.

Thirty-two years ago, KHAKO opened the doors to its first facility in a renovated Catholic church on the edge of a cane field in Puunene. In its first five years, the organization sheltered, fed and clothed more than 3,600 residents in need. In 1992, it broke ground on a new facility in Wailuku, and a year later, KHAKO Central began providing emergency food and housing to those in need. Then, in 2005, the organization welcomed the addition of KHAKO West Side in Lahaina.

KHAKO is now a comprehensive resource center that prepares families and individuals for permanent housing while providing emergency shelter, counseling services, addiction recovery management and adult education and training, as well as a primary care medical clinic and child care facilities. Yamashita says the organization underwent a paradigm shift last year, redirecting its focus to breaking the cycle of homelessness by finding and maintaining permanent housing for its residents.

The process begins the moment a family or individual walks through the front door. They first meet with an in-house housing navigator who helps them craft a viable housing plan. Then they sit down with a housing specialist who assists with the housing search and placement. Once a rental is secured, a housing retention specialist takes over and monitors the new living arrangement up to nine months to ensure everything goes smoothly.

Today, the average length of stay for a family at KHAKO is six months, while a single individual typically stays between three and four months. Clearly, the organization has made great strides: Apart from the shortened duration, Yamashita says the recidivism rate is now less than 5 percent. “Our goal is to help get people housed and stay housed,” she said. “To have such a low recidivism rate shows that the shift to a housing first approach to end homelessness is working well.”

Yamashita moved to Maui in 1991 after serving in the U.S. Air Force. She studied human services at then-Maui Community College and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in social science from the University of Hawaii-West Oahu in 2007 and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2016. Over the years, she’s held positions at the Domestic Violence Action Center, Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., The Salvation Army, Child Welfare Services, Maui Youth & Family Services and Women Helping Women Maui, where she served in multiple roles, including deputy director.

As a master’s degree candidate in the fall of 2015, she was required to apply for an internship slated to begin the following semester. Yamashita says she knew exactly where she wanted to submit an application: KHAKO. “I’d always admired this organization and its mission to help those in need,” she said.

A few weeks after she dropped off her resume and cover letter, KHAKO’s outgoing executive director called Yamashita and suggested she consider applying for an entirely different position. In March 2016, Yamashita stepped into the role of executive director, and since then, she has helped transform the lives of hundreds of men, women and children.

“It is a privilege and an honor to have been chosen to lead Ka Hale A Ke Ola,” she said. “The greatest reward for me is walking into our cafeteria and seeing someone who was formerly homeless eating a hot meal. I’m grateful to be a part of an agency that offers stability to members of our community. Everyone deserves a life of dignity.”

KHAKO provides thousands of meals to its residents every year and volunteers are always needed to prep, cook and serve food at its Central and west side facilities. KHAKO also seeks monetary donations and contributions of goods or services; immediate needs include new playground equipment, plumbing repairs, a passenger van, walk-in freezer, sheets, blankets, towels, unused pillows and nonupholstered furniture.

To learn more about Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers or to inquire about donor or volunteer opportunities, visit www.khako .org or call 242-7600.

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.