In 2016, Damien Grace was working two jobs, at Safelite Auto Glass and at Foodland in Hilo doing security, desperately trying to support his wife and five young children, including an 8-month-old.
But for six months, the family cleaned themselves before dusk with water jugs warmed only by the sun. They used the same jugs to brush their teeth. Their bathroom was a rented porta-potty. Grace, his wife and infant child slept in a tent while the four oldest kids ages 2, 4, 7 and 10 shared one room of their aunty’s tiny house.
Like many families on the Big Island, the Grace family was homeless.
And like many families in Hawaiʻi County, they were unable to find a place they could afford despite one or more people in the family working full-time or multiple jobs. With rents having soared since 2016, finding affordable housing is even more difficult now.
“Being homeless doesn’t define a person,” Grace said Monday. “There’s a lot of homeless people who work and can’t afford [rent].”
Grace’s experience has provided him with great insight and perspective in his current job. He’s a patrol officer in Puna with the Hawaiʻi Police Department.
Grace and his family were able to get out of their dire living situation and move into a three-bedroom house in Ainaloa with the help of Hope Services Hawaiʻi. The nonprofit paid the deposit and first six months of the $1,000-a-month rent.
The help was a Godsend. The family saved the money it would have paid for rent those first six months and were able to get a loan only two years later to purchase the house — which they now own.
“If it weren’t for Hope Services intervening I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Grace said.
The homeless crisis has only worsened since the Grace family’s experience. Hope Services currently is trying to find homes for 13 families.
This past fiscal year from July 2021 to June 2022, the nonprofit has served 1,482 individuals experiencing homelessness. Additionally, 192 families with underage children were served in some capacity this past fiscal year, according to data from Hope Services.
Brandee Menino, executive director of Hope Services, said affordable housing is nearly non-existent on the Big Island, with a two-bedroom home now ranging from $1,800 to $2,500 a month.
“We need affordable housing,” Menino said. “They [homeless] need a home; they need stability. They need to have their own space.”
Hope Services has more than $1.26 million in financial assistance available for three months’ rent, including a rental deposit, for homeless families. Much of the funding comes from state and federal resources.
“What’s not available is the housing to pair it with, so that’s very frustrating,” Menino said. “The secondary challenge is mental health and mental illness. The community’s capacity to respond is just not sufficient. We don’t have the services.”
But success stories like the Grace family provide hope.
Their story on the Big Island begins in 2013, when Grace moved his family to Ainaloa from Honolulu — ironically because the city was getting unaffordable and they wanted a fresh start in a less expensive town on the Big Island.
They rented a home for $1,000 a month from an owner who live on the mainland. But without receiving any warning, Grace learned the house was in foreclosure. Bank representatives initially gave the family 30 days’ notice to move out, but the eviction was extended to three months.
“She [the bank representative] treated us like we were squatting, like we were trying to stay someplace for free even though we paid our rent,” Grace said.
The Grace family was living paycheck to paycheck at the time and could not find another home to move into that they could afford.
Grace’s sister offered them refuge on her quarter-acre lot of land, which was next door to the home from which they were being evicted.
His sister’s home, the size of a single carport, could not fit the entire family of seven. Grace’s initial plan was to build a shack on the property for his family to live in while they saved money to buy a house.
Damien Grace and his wife, Kelina, and their infant child lived in a tent for four months on the property, while their four other children slept in one room in their aunty’s house.
“We had holes in our tent and had to move the tent a couple of times because it was flooding,” Grace said.
Damien and Kelina did their best to make sure their kids were happy, fed, clean and had a dry place to sleep. Kelina said she always was taking the kids to the park, away from their difficult situation. Routine was key.
Four months after being evicted, Damien Grace built a 10-by-16-foot shack with make-shift bunk beds for the kids.
“It was really draining,” Damien Grace said. “There was no security. At the same time, we didn’t want to intrude on my sister.”
The family continued to try to find an affordable home to rent with no success.
“We were going through some mental hardship,” Damien Grace said. “We felt like we were at the lowest.”
Damien Grace could escape the constant reminder of his family’s plight when he was at work. Kelina Grace, who took care of the kids, could not.
But during one of Kelina Grace’s regular visits to the YWCA, an organization that offers programs for women and families, she was connected to Hope Services.
“We needed the help, but reaching out to get help was a different thing,” Damien Grace said. “But it was at a point I was no longer going to let my pride keep us in this situation longer.”
Hope Services found the Grace family a home to rent for $1,000 a month. With Hope Services paying the deposit and first six months rent to help the family get back on its feet, Damien Grace said the family socked away the rent money they would’ve paid to go toward owning their own home. It only took only two years to accomplish that goal. Their mortgage is $1,100.
Once they had a permanent roof over their head, the family had two more children and Grace followed his dream to become a police officer. He joined the force in December 2018.
Puna Patrol Capt. Scott Amaral said Grace is an excellent officer who “seems to be able to connect with people at all different levels of distress.
“He’s good at de-escalating a tense situation,” Amaral said. “He brings his life experience to what he does and people respond to that.”
Damien Grace said sharing his personal experience with people he encounters on patrol, especially those experiencing homelessness, is a great rapport builder even while some people think at first that he’s “lying.”
“It was a shameful time, but it happens,” he said.
Menino, of Hope Services, said Grace’s story is unique. While she said she has heard of previously homeless individuals buying their own home after receiving help from the nonprofit, “I’ve never heard of someone becoming a police officer.”
Menino said Hope Services only tracks people they assist for two years so it is not known how many people end up buying their own homes. But housing retention of individuals they have helped in the fiscal year 2022 is at 90%.
Menino said Grace and his family had the determination and perseverance to take advantage of the assistance they received and permanently get out of homelessness.
“We were there to intervene but he really did the hard work after that,” Menino said. “People just need a break.”