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

Allyson Blair goes inside the effort to get treatment for hundreds of homeless people in Hawaii with mental illness.
Updated: Oct. 13, 2017 at 5:07 PM HST
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There are more than 200 homeless people who suffer from severe mental illness on Oahu. They are among the hardest to help off the streets. But the state's only psychiatric street medicine team, launched in January, is seeing successes with these seemingly impossible cases.

EVERY WEDNESDAY for five years, Institute for Human Services outreach workers tracked down Donna Abordo and Ben Taparra.

In both cases, it took about 250 encounters before the two agreed to get help.

And earlier this year, with the help of the newly-launched psychiatric street medicine team, the two started taking medication for their schizophrenia.

It was the first step they needed to make to get into housing.

The anti-psychotic drug IHS uses (called Invega Sustenna) on its patients has only been around about a decade, and it's controversial because there's disagreement over which patients it's best suited for.

But one thing is for certain, for the chronically homeless, who so many have written off as hopeless cases, it's a prescription for hope.

DONNA ABORDO was a fixture at Judd Park.

No one's certain how long she lived there. Some estimate at least 15 years.

"She was kind of dirty. She reminded me of a gypsy," said outreach worker Justin Phillips.

Every week for four years the team stopped by the park to pay Abordo a visit and offer her psychiatric medication. She finally agreed.


FOR 10 YEARS, Ben Taparra lived on the streets in Kapahulu.

During that time, his body withered away to almost nothing.

"He would yell. He could be violent at times. You couldn't hold a conversation with Ben," said Vinnesha Bertola, an outreach worker at the Institute for Human Services who met Taparra more than five years ago. She says she had a hard time trying to connect with him.

But she never gave up. And that persistence likely saved his life.


IHS SAYS IF THEIR WORK is going to make any kind of noticeable impact in the community, it needs help.

The goal is to have a psychiatrist working with an outreach team in all four regions on Oahu.

"It's going to take more personnel. It's going to take more cooperation and coordination with the community and other service providers to really make it happen," said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services.

It's also going to take more money.


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