Making a Difference: On the Frontlines

Resource centers assist clients in finding a home and employment.

Homeless for two years, Gina McGuiness recovered and went on to get a job helping others do the same.

Photo: Rae Huo

Six people sit in a cramped waiting room in a nondescript office in Kailua. Some are there to receive food they can warm up in a microwave or a clean shirt to wear, while others wait to speak to a counselor or use the computer to type out a job resume. These are among the homeless clients that the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance (AHHA) serve four days a week. 

“One of the major services we provide is case management,” says Paul Ruddell, the site coordinator of the Kailua resource center. “We talk with the homeless clients one on one, get an idea of where they’re at in life and what the next steps are [for them] to transition out of homelessness.”

AHHA works with a coalition of related nonprofits and is funded by the City and County of Honolulu. In addition to the Kailua resource center, the alliance operates two other centers, in Haleiwa and Wahiawā. Homeless clients can walk into either of the three sites and receive immediate services, such as food donated by the Hawaii Food Bank and clothing donated by private clubs, like Awana or the Lions. AHHA also hands out hygiene packs that include deodorant, shampoo, soap, sunscreen, toothpaste and razors.

“Fifteen to 20 people walk through the door every day we’re open,” says Ruddell. “Most of the time when people come in, we’ll see them again.”

After fulfilling the basic needs of the homeless clients, Ruddell and his staff of eight, all participants of the AmeriCorps program—think a domestic Peace Corps in which volunteers work to receive a scholarship for college—help them find an affordable apartment, create a resume, and even receive counseling for alcohol or drug abuse and domestic violence. The nonprofit also provides Internet access and mailboxes for clients so they can receive mail and have an address to put on job, housing or welfare applications.

“Each person’s situation is different,” says Ruddell. Some are lacking education or access to affordable housing, he notes, while others are held back by difficulty keeping a job—especially in this economy.

Ruddell notes that many of the people AHHA works with are single and living on their own. Many times, the first step is getting the client to open up and be honest with the case managers. For some, it’s easier when they talk to someone who has been in their shoes. 

Gina McGuinness, who now works fulltime at Kailua’s AHHA office, was homeless for more than two years and lived in a tent with her boyfriend at Waimanalo Beach Park. “You go through a lot,” she says. “I camped out at the beach so when it rained everything got soaked. Your basic needs are important, having clean clothes and taking a bath every day.”  

McGuinness was first helped by AHHA during one of its monthly outreach missions. She had come back home from California after leaving her husband and moved in with her parents. Eventually she had to move out and, when she couldn’t find a job, became homeless.

The nonprofit’s outreach work, in which it provides the same services in the field that it does at the resources centers, gave her food and clothing as well as a volunteering opportunity. This January, McGuinness became a paid employee through the AmeriCorps program and found an apartment the following month. “I’m self-sufficient now,” she says, adding that she can pay her bills and buy her own groceries. She even owns a laptop and a car.

She now uses her story—through her work in the Kailua office and her outreach work in Waimanalo and Kaneohe—to help clients transition out of homelessness and get their lives back on track. “They can know that it’s possible to get out of homelessness and get an apartment and a job,” says McGuinness.  “They’re talking to somebody who’s done it.”

To volunteer with AHHA or make a donation, visit