'Miraculous': How a chronically homeless drug addict became a doting grandfather

'Miraculous': How a chronically homeless drug addict became a doting grandfather
Published: Jan. 31, 2018 at 2:36 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2018 at 11:48 AM HST
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Ben Taparra once lived on the streets of Kapahulu. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Ben Taparra once lived on the streets of Kapahulu. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - These days, Ben Taparra is a proud grandpa.

"Look at 'em," he says, pointing at a photo of his grandchildren. "They're just so full of life."

But it wasn't too long ago that he was in a very different place — isolated, living on the streets, abusing drugs.

One year after becoming one of the first patients of the state's only psychiatric street medicine team, Taparra is a changed man.

In Taparra's mind, the photo of his grandkids is more than just a picture. It represents a chance to make things right with his family.

"Every time I'm on the phone with my son, the older one comes and screams in the phone, 'Hi Grandpa!'" he says.

For nearly a decade, Taparra cut out everyone in his life as he wandered the streets of Kapahulu, using crystal meth and other drugs to drown out the voices in his head brought on by mental illness.

Taparra's story of transformation was among those included in HNN's special report, Prescribing Hope, which documented the street medicine team's use of a long-acting injectable medication for homeless people with severe mental illness.

MORE: Read more about Ben Taparra's incredible transformation here.
SPECIAL REPORT: See our full Prescribing Hope report here.

Now, one year after getting his first dose of schizophrenia medication, the 62-year-old is clean and is working to rebuild relationships with his four children.

"I've been concentrating on making amends," he said. "They said they forgave me for being a terrible father and never being there for them."

Dr. Chad Koyangi, Taparra's psychiatrist, said it's been incredible to watch Taparra transform from someone lost to mental illness to someone seeking to regain relationships with family.

"For people who have both mental illness and a severe addiction, for them to deal with both of them fairly successfully is pretty miraculous," Koyanagi said.

Along with along with his monthly injection, Taparra's recovery has included classes and group therapy to cope with addiction and schizophrenia.

"I do a lot of transcendental meditation to remind myself that I don't have the problems that I used to have," he said.

He's also getting used to life in his new apartment.

It's been six months since he made the move and admits sometimes he feels lonely. Experts say that's not usual.

"They have to literally develop a new life. If you're leaving the streets, even if you're leaving the mental illness behind, something has to replace that," said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services.

Looking ahead, Taparra wants to build on the progress he's made with his children and is looking forward to future conversations with his daughter.

"She's going to be in contact with me," he said, "to make sure that I make the correct decisions in my life."

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