Curtis Tsuzaki: A Man On A Mission

Attending the Dress For Success gala dinner in March were Nani and Andrew Kaawa, Monica and Paul Kahawai, Verrina and Troy Sacapanio, Jennifer Calkins, Keoki Johnson, Curtis Tsuzaki, Pamela and James Beauford, Katherine and Mark Nahoi, and Marie and Kazu Kalani PHOTO BY KALEO DONAHUE

Attending the Dress For Success gala dinner in March were Nani and Andrew Kaawa, Monica and Paul Kahawai, Verrina and Troy Sacapanio, Jennifer Calkins, Keoki Johnson, Curtis Tsuzaki, Pamela and James Beauford, Katherine and Mark Nahoi, and Marie and Kazu Kalani PHOTO BY KALEO DONAHUE

Homelessness is an issue that is never lacking for horror stories or critical situations that seem to suggest that the issue is totally out of control. For instance, a recent study asserts that more homeless than ever before are living on our streets rather than in shelters.

That’s why, whenever you hear or learn of a solutions-oriented program that has a great record of success, it is incumbent to share such stories to give our community hope and recognize that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Rev. Curtis Tsuzaki and his Ipuka Zion initiative on the Leeward Coast is a prime example of such a program. Tsuzaki, an Iolani graduate, defines his style of homeless ministry as a special calling to lead people to enter a “gateway to a better life.”

On the basis of three City and County of Honolulu grants he received from 2007 to 2009, which was part of a community benefits package for the area including Waianae, Makaha, Nanakuli and Maili, Tsuzaki set out to create an initiative to educate, rehabilitate and transition homeless and drug-addicted couples to become contributing members of the community.

The city funding helped to locate and rent a six-bedroom home in Makaha, where the couples lived while immersed in his program and training to deal with their specific challenges with drugs, mental illnesses and low self-esteem.

He formed an ideal partnership with another individual, Abe Correia, who has dedicated his life to helping the less fortunate in our community through his innovative Bridging The Gap lectures,

talk-story sessions and workshops. It is a two-and-a-half month commitment by participants that challenges them to aspire to greater heights and set definitive goals in life by utilizing “dream boards” to serve as a reminder of the positive changes they want to make.

Before focusing his efforts on the Waianae Coast, Tsuzaki started working on the homelessness issue in 1998 through Institute for Human Services shelters.

He became so committed to his cause that he and his family moved to Nanakuli to be closer to where he needed to be on a daily basis, and to be an integral part of the community.

Initially, he focused on helping men, but gradually shifted to assisting couples — especially when he met Gwen Kahawai, an educational assistant at Nanakuli High and Intermediate who conveyed her desire to help the community and made available her family home for rent in Makaha. Her generous offer enabled Tsuzaki to broaden his outreach and leapfrog into the business of helping couples.

The secret to Tsuzaki’s success, according to program participants, is that he encourages them to “come as you are,” and that “they are capable of doing better.”

Recognizing that there often will be relapses and a tendency to make them want to quit and flee, Tsuzaki earnestly believes in never giving up and will “proactively go out to find them and bring them back into the fold.”

The “proof in the poi” of Tsuzaki’s work is his track record with the couples he has worked with. To wit: James and Pamela Beauford were homeless in Nanakuli for 14 years before entering Zion Ipuka in 2010. Now James is employed at Ko Olina and they are living in an affordable housing complex in Waianae.

Mark and Katherine Nahoi came to Zion Ipuka in 2010 from living in a storage container in Kapolei. Today they are renting a house in Makaha, and Mark is a construction employee.

Paul and Monica Kahawai had been homeless for several years before signing up with Zion Ipuka in 2012. After living with relatives for a year, Paul has found meaningful employment, and he and Monica have moved into their own place in Makaha.

Kazu and Marie Kalani enrolled with Zion Ipuka in 2010, after being homeless off and on for years. Kazu has become a truck driver and he has done so well that he is transitioning into buying a home for his family.

Their success stories have enabled them to serve as mentors and exceptional role models to the current enrollees of Zion Ipuka.

I had the fortunate opportunity of seeing, listening and experiencing these beautiful and handsome couples firsthand when I attended the Dress for Success fundraiser for Zion Ipuka last month at Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center.

They all were so nattily attired and were beaming with pride on the progress and improvements made on their quality of life. Tsuzaki invited me to attend as an expression of his appreciation for the grant monies he received from my administration when I was mayor. I came away saying to him (and I am sure all who attended that heart-warming event felt the same way): Mahalo to you for the difference you are making in our society and in transforming the lives of people.

Despite some new challenges facing Zion Ipuka, like securing additional funding and the need for a new transitional home, Tsuzaki remains committed to curing our homelessness. His solutions are rooted in three over-arching themes: housing, education and sustainability.

“Housing is a must,” he says, for many obvious reasons — from getting them off the streets, beaches, bushes and parks, to “obtaining a Social Security card because there is an actual residence that they can claim on their application.

“Education is key to helping the homeless get back on their feet and should include all kinds of learning, from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, to remedial reading, Bible study, Hawaiian culture and simply filling out an application,” he argues.

Finally, he declares, “Sustainability is pivotal to breaking the vicious cycle of poverty,” with the ultimate goal of being in a home of their own and possibly even owning it.

For that to occur, the homeless individual needs to be equipped with the motivation and desire to be employable, and those with unique skills and abilities to strive to be entrepreneurial.

As daunting as these objectives may be, one has to admire Tsuzaki’s drive and determination in his ardent and passionate belief in the worth of every soul, irrespective of their status or standing in life.

Given what he has accomplished with limited resources thus far, imagine what he could get done if he had more assistance and support?

We need to find more ways to help individuals like Rev. Curtis Tsuzaki fulfill their mission to help resolve one of the most difficult and complicated social problems the state ever has encountered.