Without forming an official BYU-Hawaii club, Bryce Coleman, a senior from Arizona majoring in intercultural peacebuilding, said he joins students together in a group called Everyone is Ohana to volunteer and reach out to homeless people in Hawaii.
Help instead of judge
The State of Hawaii has the highest homeless population per capita in the United States, according to federal statistics. Coleman said their organization strives to change others’ perspectives for the homeless. “People don’t see homeless as people,” Coleman explained, “People judge them, even members of the Church.”
Coleman shared some comments that people may say when they are judging the homeless such as “They’re homeless because they’re lazy,” or “They did it to themselves.” Coleman counseled people instead should be aware of the difficulties victims of hopelessness go through.
Drug addiction, physical illness, and especially mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can all be reasons why people are homeless, according to Coleman.
He shared an example of PTSD, “Oftentimes the homeless we encounter have PTSD from the rough conditions of living on the street. They often get in a cycle that is hard for them to break on their own. They need a job to afford a house, and they need an address or at least a phone to get a job. Employers are not very willing to employ the homeless, or work with them as they overcome their challenges.
In Sydney, a study showed “79 percent of [a homeless] sample had a lifetime prevalence of post-traumatic stress. In 59 percent of cases, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder preceded the age of the first reported homeless episode,” according to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.
The environment of the street makes it even more difficult for homeless people to recover from their mental illness because they feel unsafe, Coleman explained. “The mentality of being on the streets really affects people negatively. You take the safety you have at home or on campus for granted, but the homeless are always on the street. They can never sleep well without worrying if the police will kick them off the beach, or about if someone is going to steal their things.”
Therefore, Coleman said people should stop judging the homeless without knowing the reasons why they are homeless in the first place. “There are so many factors. I would encourage others to take time to learn about the homeless before they judge them. Many of them have had very rough pasts but are still very friendly people.”
How does everyone is ohana help?
Coleman and his fellow volunteers started the group because they realized how much help homeless people need, he said. They named their organization Everyone is Ohana because they help homeless people through a family-like relationship.
“If I don’t have money, I have family that I can fall back on. I can go back home to Arizona if I fail or ask my dad for help, but homeless people don’t have that kind of support. They are [at] rock bottom, and all the people around them are in the same or worse state than themselves.
“There aren’t many good influences in their lives. We want to provide that good influence for them by building a family-like relationship,” explained Coleman.
Tanner Smith, a volunteer of Everyone is Ohana, said compared with acting charitably from a pedestal, humanizing homeless people is more helpful to them. “It isn’t an issue of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We are all the same humanity here together.
“There is also a lot we can learn from the homeless. Many of our homeless brothers and sisters understand the evils of materialism better than us more privileged individuals ever could,” said Smith, a junior from Oregon majoring biology and English.
What Everyone is Ohana does is very simple, commented Coleman, which is to simply provide students the opportunity to get to know the homeless on a personal level and use their influence to motivate them to improve their lives.
“It’s like home teaching,” Coleman shared, “When we visit them, we talk to them and see what we can help them with. Sometimes we give them a haircut. Sometimes [when] they haven’t had a shower for a while, we get them a place for a shower.”
“They’re like investigators. We find out why they’re homeless.” Coleman said depending on what the problem is, they refer homeless people to organizations that help fight drug addiction, provide career training, or to social workers that help them apply for housing.
Coleman added it’s important to understand homeless people’s problems and help each individual specifically. He shared a quote from President Ezra Taft Benson, “The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ would take the slums out of people, and then they would take themselves out of the slums.”
The vicious cycle of the homeless
“There are multiple programs that work on helping the homeless get temporary or transitional shelter,” said Coleman. “However, a large percentage of the homeless that get put in these shelters end up back on the street within a year. They need help overcoming their own individual challenges and problems to be able to rejoin society.
“Each homeless person has their own needs and reasons for being homeless. Trying to use blanket solutions to fix their needs isn’t very effective. That’s why we focus on using personal relationships to motivate them to overcome their own problems.”
However, the challenge of helping the homeless get off of the street is full of difficulties. Coleman said its similar to serving a mission; there are progressing and non-progressing homeless people. “It is hard for people to change. Especially homeless who have been on the streets for more than a few months. They forget what it was like to be part of society. They get in a routine and their mentality changes.”
Coleman explained on the North Shore there aren’t many places the homeless can legally stay. They often receive tickets from the police and sometimes even get imprisoned. Coleman recalled an individual telling him, “‘I get free food and a bed. I don’t mind it.’”
It’s also hard for “progressing homeless people” to get employed because they usually don’t have a phone, Coleman explained. “They need a phone to get a job. Every time someone donates us an old phone, I give it to them, but their phones always get stolen because they don’t have a safe place to keep their phones.
“Theft is one of the main reasons that prevent them from progressing. The homeless who work the most are the biggest targets of theft.”
Lacey Magee, a volunteer of Everyone is Ohana and a senior studying social work from Maryland, said it’s unique to see Everyone is Ohana grow as an organization. “I remember attending a meeting last year with about seven people and now it has become a campus-wide effort even including community members.”
Magee said the group not only helps people in need, but also builds a relationship between the community and the students.
Coleman said initially it can be uncomfortable and scary to help homeless people but it’s still worth it. “Think about what Jesus would do if He were here in Hawaii. Would He be in inside campus all the time or would He go out visiting the homeless?”
The Enactus program is helping Everyone is Ohana to fund their projects to eventually become a non-profit organization. Everyone is Ohana is grateful for the support. To find out how to get involved with the group, follow them on Facebook at Everyone is Ohana.