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Spreading Aloha: Eliminating Homelessness Among Native Hawaiians

by Kate Enos

Within tribal communities, Native Americans are uniting to combat the dire problems affecting their populations, including poverty, addiction, and high suicide rates. Native American youth leaders have taken the lead, inspiring their communities to take action and tackling these issues head on.

As a result of their work, eleven Native American Youth leaders were invited to the White House to be honored as a White House Champion of Change.

When Desiree Vea of Koloa, Hawaii returned home to Hawaii after college in 2009, homelessness had hit its highest point since 1997, particularly among Native Hawaiians. Moved by the needs of her community, Desiree joined AmeriCorps VISTA to help homeless families transition to permanent rentals.

During her time as a VISTA, Desiree helped the community hear the voices of the homeless and see how important their voice was. As the 2011 legislative session began in Hawaii, she conducted her first workshop where citizens came together to organize a poverty simulation at the capitol.

Today, the work Desiree started continues to be carried on and expanded, where the community has now been empowered to create community cash-flow projects, multi-family markets and micro-enterprise.

In town for both the Champions of Change event and the White House Tribal Nations Summit, Desiree took a moment to answer a few of our questions about her service work.

What compelled you to address issues of homelessness among Native Hawaiians when you returned from college?

Homelessness is an issue that is very visual on Oahu, the island I moved to after college (I'm originally from Kauai). On the Leeward Coast, you would see stretches of land with tents and make-shift homes. Every morning and afternoon, I would travel from Honolulu to the Leeward coast and think, "Where are these people's families? Where is our sense of community? Aloha?"

As my first AmeriCorps position ended, I saw that there was another position helping the homeless population. It was a community-based project focusing on listening and creating solutions from the very families and individuals who were homeless themselves and I realized I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to be a part of the process of listening and helping them develop a voice in the community and within our government.

What made you want to become an AmeriCorps member?

It sounded amazing. The hands-on experience in a capacity where I got to learn, build and create -- how could anyone say no to that?

What did you do in your position as an AmeriCorps member? Where did you serve?

My first term of service was in 2007 as a Conservation Corps member in Kauai. I returned to the Conservation Corps in 2009 to then serve an AmeriCorps Team Leader. After two short terms of service, I took on a year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, working in funding development for the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps.

From there, I served with Hawaiian Community Assets, where I became inspired to advocate on behalf of native Hawaiians who are homeless. I developed a renter education curriculum for those transitioning from being homeless to renters. Later, I became a full-time employee of Hawaiian Community Assets as a HUD Certified Housing Counselor and am proud to continue serving the people of Hawaii with home-buyer education, youth financial literacy, and asset building programs.

As an AmeriCorps member, how did you inspire individuals and families living in homelessness to take control of their own futures? Do you see the work you started as an AmeriCorps member being carried on today?

I definitely see the work I started continue to thrive, but the fire of the movement is truly from the work of those I have come in contact with. Those who have the experience know what they need, but most of the time, they just aren't asked. I asked and listened. Then they asked what they can do and I told them how they could make a difference. They took that and made the process their own.

If you could suggest one thing people can do to help the Native Hawaiian homeless, what should they do to get involved?

There is a stigma around homelessness. I truly believe the first step is having the people of Hawaii understand that these people are just like you and me. Often times, homelessness can stem from an accident, a death in the family, and a struggling economy.

Start by educating yourself about the issue and then learn how your skills can help. Don't just go out and give what you think someone needs or doing what you think help. Observe, listen, and then work with organizations that have history working in the homeless community to get involved.

What's your favorite AmeriCorps moment?

I have too many... every time I learn one thing from those I serve, my heart overflows with joy. I always start talking to people, realizing we all have something to learn. If everyone in the room learns one thing, we have fulfilled our mission.

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