She lived on the streets for 35 years, lost in her illness. Her family never gave up

She lived on the streets for 35 years, lost in her illness. Her family never gave up

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For more than three decades, Jeanette Serikaku and her shopping carts have been a fixture in downtown Honolulu.

Her homelessness was a result of severe schizophrenia.

The 55-year-old was recently featured in “Prescribing Hope,” the Hawaii News Now special report that documented the work of the state’s only psychiatric street medicine team — and the many interactions it had with Jeanette.

“Everybody can see that we have many people who are mentally ill on the street,” said Dr. Chad Koyanagi.

“As I work with many of them you don’t think that they have any family involved. Or any family who have tried to help. But it’s actually quite the opposite.”

Despite hundreds of offers of help, Serikaku always refused psychiatric medication and shelter.

But the HNN documentary helped change that. Two months after the original airing of “Prescribing Hope,” Koyanagi got a phone call from Serikaku’s sister after a relative sent her a link to the story.

‘She’d just look away from me’

She said her family had been trying for decades to help Serikaku.

“There are seven of us. I’m the second oldest and she’s the second youngest,” said Cheryl Sasaki.

“I’d see her near K-Mart, by 7-11 on Dillingham. I’d always stop by just to see how she’s doing. It was never any eye contact. She’d just look away from me.”

Sasaki says her sister first started showing signs of mental illness when she was just a girl and says she has been living on the street nearly her entire adult life.

[Prescribing Hope: How a small Hawaii team is helping the hardest to house]

“You know our whole family went to see the state psychiatrist, Dr. Leland,” Sasaki said.

“He said at that time, and it was probably in the 70s, that he couldn’t do anything because she wasn’t hurting herself and she’s not hurting anybody.”

Koyanagi said Serikaku’s case is unusual because of the severity of her mental illness and her resistant to getting help.

In the months after Cheryl Sasaki called him, Koyanagi helped guide her through the process of obtaining legal guardianship over her sister. A judge granted the motion on June 14. And with help from Honolulu police, an IHS outreach team was able to have Serikaku admitted into Castle Medical Center.

There, she was treated for severe wounds on both of her legs.

‘Her hostility went down’

And on Aug. 22, she received her first injection of schizophrenia medication.

“Her hostility went down. Her ability to have a conversation increased. Her hygiene increased," Koyanagi said. “Now she’s focused on getting into housing and maintaining regular contact with her sister.”

For more than a year and a half, Hawaii News Now documented Serikaku’s journey from a distance because of her paranoia with cameras. But that also changed in early October.

“I feel more comfortable now,” Serikaku said, during a recent conversation on Alakea Street.

She said she was headed to Safe Haven, a facility that provides permanent supportive housing for people who are mentally ill. “If there’s a space I’m going to jump in as soon as possible,” she said.

‘She smiles. She’s never done that before’

She also talked about a recent conversation with her sister. “She makes me believe in the past,” Serikaku said.

Five days later, a bed opened up at Safe Haven. On Oct. 15, she moved in.

Serikaku continues to willingly take her medication and is showing signs of improvement everyday.

“Mentally, I think she’s in a better place right now,” Sasaki said. “She smiles. She’s never done that before. She smiles and she looks at me and she says thank you.”

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Prescribing Hope: A Homeless in Hawaii Special Report

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