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Joseph Acosta always thought there was a better way to deal with the homeless people he encountered on his Wahiawa beat as a Honolulu police officer — and for two months in 2014 Acosta got a firsthand taste of homelessness when he had to live out of his subsidized police vehicle when money grew tight for the twice-divorced father of four.
During his 16 years with the Honolulu Police Department, Acosta had learned that compassion works better than cracking down on the homeless — a point that resonated as he squeezed his 5-foot-11-inch, 245-pound body into his Buick SUV to sleep each night among his police uniforms and street clothes.
“It was humbling,” said Acosta, 39. “I realized how difficult it is.”
Now, 16 months after he left HPD to form a nonprofit agency dedicated to helping the homeless from Mililani to the North Shore, Acosta and HPD commanders are working to create a pilot program for urban Honolulu’s homeless that would better coordinate the efforts of patrol officers with social service agencies to get them help and off the street.
“He’s doing great work out there, and HPD’s really excited for him to come back and partner with us,” said HPD Lt. Mike Lambert, who is coordinating the meetings for a program tentatively called Help Honolulu for the police district that runs from Liliha to Kalakaua Avenue.
During his HPD career, Acosta worked in the cellblock with Lambert, later patrolled Wahiawa and also bought pounds of illegal drugs as an undercover HPD narcotics officer working with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He also served a tour in Iraq with the Army Reserve.
Acosta knows better than most the limits of police officers in dealing with the island’s homeless, Lambert said.
“He’s a great conduit because he understands what the social service side is trying to provide,” Lambert said. “But he also understands that on the police side, we have limitations regarding noncriminal activity.”
The initial goal of the pilot program is to bring social service agencies together with HPD to “understand what each other does and come together,” Lambert said. “We want to take everyone’s resources and try to overlay them in a way that benefits all of Honolulu.”
A higher calling calls
It’s a homecoming of sorts and just the latest chapter for Acosta, who often sees himself in the homeless people he’s trying to help — whether they’re military veterans like himself, struggling financially, or the children of poor immigrants, such as himself.
He’s watched the effects of illegal drugs, especially crystal meth. And he can empathize with those who have mental health problems, as well. Acosta has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression from his time in Iraq.
Acosta is the second youngest of eight boys and a baby sister, born to Filipino immigrants who each worked two jobs.
“We were dirt poor,” Acosta said. “I hardly saw my parents.”
Acosta arrived from the Philippines at age 5 and “didn’t have much guidance.” His older brothers were already in middle school and high school.
“I never enjoyed school,” Acosta said. “I didn’t like going to school. I didn’t go to school. I grew up on the streets, at the beach. Went home at 1 in the morning or 10 at night or the following day.”
He had to take a summer school English class to graduate with his Pearl City High School class of 1995, before joining the military.
Later, working the streets as a Honolulu patrol officer, Acosta always tried to go an extra step with those in need — and especially make time to go back for a check-up.
It’s that extra effort that Acosta hopes becomes part of HPD’s pilot program.
“Instead of, ‘Shoo, move along, move away,’ it’s, ‘Sir, what’s your name? How can we help you today?’” Acosta said. “Then we need to connect them to substance abuse and mental health (professionals). I told them (HPD), I’ll answer those calls. I’ll volunteer.”
Acosta was still working patrol for HPD in late 2015, and the idea of creating a nonprofit group to help the homeless was still a vague notion.
He had swallowed his pride, moved out of his SUV and was living with his parents in Waipio Gentry over the holiday season as he drove his children around to pass out homemade cookies to the homeless people they came across.
That’s when one of his daughters asked a question from the back seat that Acosta could not answer.
“I heard, ‘Hey, Daddy, what are they going to eat tonight? We’re just giving them a snack,’” Acosta remembered. “I had no answer, and I deal with these people every day as a policeman.”
The question haunted Acosta until one night in December 2015, and the end of another long shift.
“I got home from work around 11:30 p.m.-ish and I was standing in the driveway just winding down,” Acosta remembered. “That’s when it was given to me — an idea of what I should be doing with the rest of my life, to somehow help mankind. Help humanity. Help those in the community. It was a calling. A higher calling.”
Building a bridge
Acosta’s next step was taking shape.
“Why can’t I start up some type of organization where I can help these people in a different way?” Acosta started asking himself. “That was all stewing in my head.”
By January 2016, Acosta was still a Honolulu police officer when he attended a Wahiawa homeless forum organized by state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, (D, Wahiawa-Whitmore-Poamoho).
Acosta’s initial optimism that “maybe this will be the start to get the ball moving” ended in frustration.
“At no point did anyone come up with a solution,” Acosta said. “It was disheartening.”
By then, Acosta was thinking seriously about retiring and focusing on helping homeless people from Mililani to Wahiawa to the North Shore more directly through an organization he would go on to create with his family named ALEA Bridge.
ALEA is an acronym for Acosta’s four children: Alyssa, 16; Leila, 4; Emmalani, 6; and Austin, 13.
But “alea” also has a Hebrew definition that’s appropriate for homeless people in need of a second chance, Acosta said.
“It means to ascend, to rise up,” he said. “Basically, it’s getting people a second chance in their life, giving them a sense of hope, giving them a purpose in life to work towards and eventually be successful and back on their feet.”
Oshiro initially was surprised that a veteran police officer would transform himself into a homeless outreach worker.
“At first I was taken aback about how audacious he was that he was going to put a full-time commitment to helping the homeless encamped around Wahiawa,” Oshiro said. “He’s a wonderful, kind, authentic, genuine, true public servant. That’s the kind of people that you rarely meet in this business. He is really a gem, really a special individual.”
As a police officer, Oshiro said, “he’s seen the worst of us. The worst effects of a human life degrading to the point that they are homeless, destitute, desperate, maybe addicted to illegal substances and not having any hope in life. Joe Acosta proves the point that law enforcement alone is insufficient to address this homeless crisis and that sooner, earlier, better intervention with social workers, with medical care, with counseling and better housing arrangements, can do much for these individuals before they become criminals and enter into another phase of hopelessness.”
A family effort
Acosta, however, is quick to credit his family for the initial goodwill and success that ALEA Bridge has generated among police and public officials.
While Joseph founded ALEA Bridge and serves as its director of operations, he’s leaving it up to his older brother, Phil, 44, to run it as executive director.
“Initially I was going to be executive director,” Joseph Acosta said. “I Googled how to be executive director, and that’s not my role. I’m more boots-on-the-ground. Grant writing is not my thing. (Phil) communicates very well with people at the Capitol, with other executive directors of other nonprofits. I’m very grateful for Phil.”
ALEA Bridge already has received a $1 million grant-in-aid from the state to create a homeless navigation center somewhere from Wahiawa to the North Shore, a span that saw its homeless population jump 74 percent in the latest homeless census.
The Acosta brothers’ sister, Madonna Sisson, serves as president of ALEA Bridge’s board of directors. Her husband, Garrett Sisson, is the board treasurer. Phil Acosta’s wife, Marissa Acosta, is the board vice president.
“We all sacrificed a lot,” Joseph Acosta said.
For well over a year, Acosta had been surviving on his Department of Veterans Affairs disability pay of $511 a month.
Thanks to a homeless outreach subcontract with U.S. Vets, he just got his first two paychecks.
Acosta now earns $15 an hour.
For Acosta, forming ALEA Bridge with his family was never about the money.
“My goal with this organization is to help as many people as I can before I die,” he said. “I’m going to impact their lives for the better. That’s my only purpose in life.”