PART I: A ‘gypsy’ re-learns how to live — off the streets

Prescribing Hope: A Homeless in Hawaii Special Report

SHE'D PROBABLY BEEN homeless at Judd Park for 15 years — maybe longer. No one is really sure.

When an outreach team from the Institute for Human Services started helping Donna Abordo four years ago, she was nearly lost to her mental illness.

"I haven't been there that long," Abordo told outreach workers in March, oblivious to the many years she'd been sleeping in a hole she dug in the park. "Maybe, you know, for a short while."

"She reminded me of a gypsy," recalled outreach worker Justin Phillips.

Dr. Chad Koyanagi, of the Institute for Human Services' new psychiatric street medicine team, said the 60-year-old's schizophrenia affected how she thought, felt and acted.

"People with schizophrenia can have auditory hallucinations or delusional thinking, believing people are trying to harm them," he said.

The first change: Hygiene

He added that she didn't hear voices. Her symptoms manifested in behavior that affected her overall self-care. Abordo would rarely shower and her clothes were filthy — covered in human waste.

"Donna would strip down naked in the park," said Vinnesha Bertola, an IHS outreach worker. "She would use the restroom anywhere."

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

The first shot was the biggest hurdle.

But within weeks of starting her medication, outreach workers began seeing a change: Although her clothes were dirty, they were no longer covered in urine and feces.

"First, the hygiene gets better. Then, the interpersonal ability to connect gets better," Koyanagi said.

Over the course of the next couple months, she stabilized even more.

'They get housing. That's the reward.'

Outreach workers helped Abordo get her Social Security card, birth certificate and state ID so she could start the process of getting her own place.

They were amazed at the transformation: "She's very aware. She remembers my name. She remembers what we did the week before. She remembers plans for the future. What we did in the past. It's completely different," said Bertola.

Just four months after her first dose of psychiatric medication, Abordo moved into her own apartment.

"This is wonderful," Abordo said. "I feel overjoyed about it. I wish there was someone I could share it with."

A rental voucher covered the cost of the unit. The furniture was donated.

"That's the reward," said Phillips, the outreach worker, reflecting on the milestone. "They get housing. It's the main paycheck to your work."

Despite being a little overwhelmed by her new surroundings, move-in day went smoothly for Abordo.

But the support from outreach workers didn't stop there.

"It's been years since she's been in or seen a place of her own. So, I'm sure it was a lot for her to take in all at once," Bertola said.

'Our work begins now'

Added Phillips: "I'm very happy. But to be honest with you our work begins now."

After all of the furniture was in place, IHS housing first specialist Fionnah Alo handed Abordo a new set of keys — and then helped her figure out how to use them. It's Alo's job to make sure Abordo doesn't end up back on the streets.

If there is a problem, she's available 24 hours a day. But her main focus is to help Donna transition away from her old lifestyle.

"I have a feeling Donna's been homeless so long she doesn't even know how to use a microwave," Phillips said. "She probably doesn't know how to do basic things like wash her clothes, budget her account. So we've got to go back now and start working from there. And start teaching her those things."

Today, nearly five months in her new place, outreach workers say Abordo is adjusting well.

She enjoys going to the grocery store and is also learning to cook. One of her favorite things to do: Make sweets.

ON TO PART II: He lived for years on the streets, locked away in his own world. But he wasn't beyond help.

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