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Poor for the holidays

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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
Cherelle Navarro and Chivasco Tomoichi, both with new jobs, are working hard to overcome past issues associated with poverty and remain optimistic about their future. The file photo at right shows the Next Step shelter in Kakaako.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY BRYANT FUKUTOMI / BFUKUTOMI@STARADVERTISER.COM
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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
Rona Fukumoto of Catholic Charities Hawaii, left, and Cherelle Navarro, who was helped by the nonprofit, hugged at the office last week.

In the dream, Chivasco Tomoichi and Cherelle Navarro no longer live in a cramped one-bedroom apartment in a cluster of McCully walk-ups.

They have a cozy place in a clean, safe neighborhood. No domestic violence. No drug dealers or crack moms. No peer pressure to take the easy way out.

People work hard in the dream. They do the right things. Young couples make do with what they have and plan and save for the future. Parents nurture and teach their children — like Tomoichi’s young son and daughter — so they’ll grow up to have better lives.

"We’re at the bottom right now," Tomoichi says, "but we’re working our way up."

Thanks to financial assistance and counseling from Catholic Charities Hawaii, Tomoichi and Navarro, who once lived in a truck, can at least envision a better life, even in an unforgiving economy.

But for too many others these days, just getting by each month is a monumental struggle. For them, especially during the holidays, it is becoming harder and harder to tell the dream from a delusion.

Census Bureau figures show that 12.5 percent of Hawaii’s residents — more than 156,000 people — lived below the poverty line in 2009. For a family of four, that’s an income of $25,360 a year or less.

Many working people simply don’t make enough to pay for their necessities while a growing number worked most of their lives before losing their jobs in the recession and only now are beginning to show up in social service statistics.

"Some had good jobs, but now they’re eating into their retirement or whatever savings they had," says Rona Fukumoto, Intake, Information and Referral Director of Catholic Charities Hawaii. "They may not fit into the general definition of poverty at this point, but as time progresses and if they’re not able to get jobs, they may fall into that."

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Sometimes, falling into poverty can be a matter of chance — a bad break, a twist of fate — and nowadays it is looking like short odds.

Del Monte Fresh Produce. Aloha Airlines. Maui Land & Pineapple. Norwegian Cruise Lines. Gay & Robinson. KHNL-TV. The Honolulu Advertiser. State workers. Recent mass layoffs have left thousands without jobs.

Many are still struggling to recover. The poverty rate in Hawaii has risen in each of the last three years, from 7.5 percent in 2007 to 9.9 percent in 2008 to 12.5 percent — more than 156,000 people — in 2009.

And if a scarcity of jobs wasn’t enough, more working people are earning lower wages. Almost 40 percent of state households made less than $50,000 last year, down 3 percent from 2008.

During the holidays, the numbers can paint an especially bleak picture. Social service agencies across the state are reporting increases in the number of people seeking help with food and housing.

Jerry Rauckhorst, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii, says the desperation of the working poor is real and that a lot of the people his organization is serving "probably wouldn’t be in this situation if economic factors were different.

"This isn’t something they’ve chosen," Rauckhorst says. "It hasn’t been a pattern of bad decisions, irresponsibility, whatever kinds of adjectives you use to describe them. A lot have worked and provided for their families, taken care of basic needs for years. And now, the reality is that there is no job, there is no opportunity."

Catholic Charities Hawaii assistance programs focus largely on the working poor and make what Rauckhorst calls "investments" in families in need. With limited resources, dollars need to be spent wisely, and people seeking help must show that they have a plan to improve their lives. Those seeking free rides need not apply.

Chivasco Tomoichi, 24, and Cherelle Navarro, 20, consider themselves lucky.

Both had recently lost jobs and were unemployed when they approached Catholic Charities Hawaii for help. At first they had paid their bills with money Navarro had from a medical settlement. When that was gone, they sold personal belongings and even returned their television set to Wal-Mart for a refund.

Finally, flat broke and facing eviction, with no money even for bus fare, they put on their best clothes and walked from their McCully apartment to Catholic Charities Hawaii in Makiki Heights, near the top of Keeaumoku Street.

The trek was worth it. After an interview and a discussion of their plans, Catholic Charities Hawaii paid the couple’s overdue rent and then enrolled them in a counseling program that showed them how to budget and plan for their future. Shortly afterward, both found work — Navarro as a hotel housekeeper and Tomoichi as a maintenance man.

Despite being paid the back rent, the couple’s landlord has told them he won’t renew their rental agreement when it expires at the end of January.

"It’s going to be tough, but it’s probably good for us to leave that place and get a brand-new start," says Navarro, who wants to return to school and become a preschool teacher. "We’ve got some money saved up now and we’ll be OK."

Another couple was well on their way when life interrupted.

We’ll call them Alex and Lani to protect their privacy. Alex is 31 and Lani, 28. Both have full-time jobs and should be living comfortably, if not well.

But when a series of family predicaments left seven of Alex’s preteen siblings without a home five years ago, he and Lani made a choice: Rather than let the six boys and one girl go to foster homes, they would take them in.

"All the kids came with nothing," Lani said. "My husband and I had to take out a loan and use our credit cards. We had to move into a bigger home, so we had to break our lease and lose our deposit. We had to take out a loan to put down a first-month (rent) and deposit on the new place and we had to take out loans for all the things the kids needed."

It was one thing after another: A bigger house, then a bigger car, higher gas bills, more food, lots more clothing, a spike in utilities. Payment after payment after payment.

"A lot of the debt we got into when we got the kids we haven’t been able to pull ourselves out of," Lani says. "There’s almost never any extra money, and whenever there is, it’s needed for all the other things you’re behind on."

It is a no-frills lifestyle, to be sure. Saimin is a staple, as are large pizzas from Costco. The No. 1 rule in shopping is: If it’s not on sale, it’s not going into the cart.

Last Christmas, the family was adopted by KHON2’s Lokahi program and given 10 movie tickets as part of a gift package, "which was great because there’s no way we can afford to pay $100 for tickets alone," Lani says.

"So there were nine of us and I got to take my nephew along. And we go into the theater and he’s like, ‘Auntie, can I have the kid’s popcorn and drink and this is the candy I want,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no, no. You’re with Auntie now. We’re getting one big popcorn and we’re going to refill it, so you share with the person next to you. And I’m going to buy two large sodas, so whichever kind of soda you want, you go sit next to that person.’ This is not what normal kids are used to."

Poverty doesn’t play favorites, say Rauckhorst and Rona Fukumoto, Catholic Charities Hawaii’s Intake, Information and Referral Director. In a tenuous economy, it can happen to anyone. Sometimes even the best intentions can sink you.

Social service agencies can help, but they can only do so much. More job creation is needed, and the hope is that the city’s rail project will deliver on that count, although Fukumoto worries that a full spectrum of opportunities beyond engineers and skilled workers might not be available.

More part-time jobs could help there, Fukumoto says, "because in Hawaii it’s not so much unemployment as underemployment. A lot of people here depend on two or three part-time jobs, and if they lose one they start to fall behind and are no longer sustainable."

Until then, many people will continue to struggle.

But in some cases, they will persevere as well.

"It’s definitely been tough. But, yeah, it’s been worth it," Lani says. "We always feel that the highs are better than the lows. And one high is better than 10 lows.

"Don’t get me wrong. We always want to give up, sometimes every other day. It’s a team effort: We take turns falling apart. But every time my husband and I reach the decision that we have to let the kids go, it’s always forgotten in an hour or by the next morning.

"When we do things together as a family, which is sometimes just sitting around, I love to see the kids laugh. Oh, they fight a lot, like most kids — maybe a little more because we’re in such close proximity. There’s not enough space for everybody and it’s hard for everyone to get their own attention because we have to think about everybody as a whole.

"But to see them happy, to see them succeed, that’s really big. And my husband … these are his siblings … because they’ve always had such a large family, that’s kind of all they had, just being together. And now he’s taking care of them and keeping the family together."

There won’t be a lot under the Christmas tree this year, Lani says, maybe something from Lokahi again, and gifts from the foster family holiday party. "But the kids know the bills have to be paid and there’s other things and they’re understanding," she says. "They’re very happy with whatever they get."

Tomoichi says hitting rock bottom was a blessing, because it forced him to truly take stock of his life and to seek help — and as long as he keeps trying to better himself, there is nowhere to go but up.

Regardless of the odds, he and Navarro insist that a common goal and shared hard work can be truly uplifting, in the way hopes and dreams keep you going when life turns bad.

"Christmas? It don’t really matter to me that much," Tomoichi says. "I ain’t into presents and stuff like that. I never had a lot of presents when I was growing up. To me, that’s just material things.

"What I really want is to get a nice place for my kids … a nice, secure environment so they can just be themselves. …"

"And not be scared," Navarro says.

"A clean place in a good, safe neighborhood. …" Tomoichi continues.

"And their own bed," Navarro says. "In their own room, where they can be together and warm."

The two squeeze hands.

"To me, that’s the best thing I can give my kids," Tomoichi says. "That would be my gift to them, that would be my gift to (Cherelle) and that would be my gift to me."

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