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Housing project for formerly incarcerated women opens

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - 3/8/2023

Mar. 8—There is now a home for women coming out of prison—a place where they can feel safe and get the support they need to get back on their feet.

There is now a home for women coming out of prison—a place where they can feel safe and get the support they need to get back on their feet.

Mohala Mai, meaning to "blossom forth, " is Oahu's first permanent, supportive housing project for formerly incarcerated women.

The four-story building in McCully offers 24 furnished apartments for justice-­involved women and their children, with subsidized rent and all utilities, including internet access, included. It has a community room and is conveniently near an elementary school, parks and businesses—with a bus stop right outside.

Mohala Mai is a collaboration among the City and County of Honolulu, which owns the building, the Women's Prison Project and nonprofit manager Housing Solutions Inc.

"This project was built on faith, " said former Gov. Linda Lingle of the Women's Prison Project at a blessing for Mohala Mai on Tuesday. "Faith that we could get the city to allow us to use this building, faith that women would want to be here, faith that we could raise the money that we would need. Faith has kept us going and will keep this project going."

The Women's Prison Project, a volunteer coalition dedicated to restorative justice for Hawaii's justice-­involved women, raised funds for Mohala Mai and helped furnish the apartments.

Lingle said after seeing the empty building, which the city owns, on Citron Street, she got in touch with Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and presented her vision for the project.

"Permanent supportive housing in a safe and secure environment is a critical need for women transitioning out of prison, " said Lingle, noting the recidivism rate for formerly incarcerated women in Hawaii has persistently been at 50 %. "We all believe that recidivism can be significantly reduced and formerly incarcerated women can successfully reintegrate into our community if we provide this kind of support."

During her time as governor, she and documentary filmmaker Edgy Lee interviewed inmates at the Women's Community Correctional Center about why so many landed back in prison, and lack of housing was often the issue.

One of the inmates she interviewed, Simone Ka ­maunu, boldly asked Lingle for her phone number and called her when she got out of prison. Today, Kamaunu is a student at Windward Community College, with the goal of becoming a Hawaiian-­language teacher, and excited to support the project.

"Having Mohala Mai is very important for women coming out of prison, " she said at the blessing. "You need a support team and that's what this is. ... I am successful right now and I'm going to be successful because of the people I chose on my support team. If more women coming out have that, then they're going to be successful. I know anybody can do it."

Instead of the word "rehabilitation, " Lingle said she preferred the word "restoration " for efforts to reintegrate these women back into the community.

"I've been thinking a lot about it, and I like the word 'restore, '" she said. "Restoration—restore a woman's dignity, restore a woman's independence, restore a woman's sense of self-worth."

The residents of Mohala Mai will be accepted via referral, according to Gaye Johnston, president and principal broker of Housing Solutions Inc., whether it be via the prison directly, transitional programs or the recently established Women's Court.

Residents will include women who exited prison after serving their sentences, are on parole or probation, completed a transitional housing program after prison or who were diverted from prison by the Women's Court.

Residents at Mohala Mai will be asked to pay 30 % of their monthly income toward the rent—$750 a month for studios and $1, 450 a month for one-­bedrooms—while the remainder will be paid for by private foundation grants.

For women with no income, subsidized housing will be provided for up to three months while they get help finding a job or enrolling in an educational program.

A full-time social worker will be available on-site for assistance with employment, education or other needs.

One of the residents at Mohala Mai, who was not identified, shared in a statement at the blessing that she was grateful for the "safe haven " it provides, as well as a solid foundation to live a healthy and sober life.


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