Two proclamations on homelessness from Gov. David Ige will make it possible to pump another $300,000 into programs around the islands that help people such as Dolores Ortega and her family of six stay in their two-bedroom apartment on Kauai.
While Ige and county mayors continue to search for ways to get Hawaii’s 7,620 homeless people off the street, no one knows how many like Ortega and her family are on the verge of joining them.
“It’s hard for a lot of people,” said Ortega, 27. “These programs really helped us get back on track. If they weren’t there, we would be out there homeless.”
Ortega dropped a bread knife on her foot in June, severing a tendon. Her husband, Bryant Mena, 27, was then fired from his job in July over a dispute about why he missed two days of work.
In July the nonprofit Kauai Economic Opportunity Inc. covered their $780 rent. Then Catholic Charities Hawaii paid their August rent.
Ortega has since gotten a job at Jack in the Box, and the family also receives food stamps and $986 per month in county aid.
But without the two months’ worth of rent payments, Ortega said she knows her family — with children ages 1 through 8 — would have been out on the street.
“It secured our home. It secured our roof over our kids’ head,” Ortega said. “We were hanging on by a thread. Being homeless was a scary thought. It’s what scared me the most.”
Catholic Charities Hawaii has the state contract to offer rental assistance and other services to prevent at-risk families from becoming homeless on every island except Oahu, where the contract is run by Helping Hands Hawaii.
For the fiscal year that ended July 31, Catholic Charities Hawaii distributed 102 grants worth just under $80,000 that helped 96 households.
At the same time, Helping Hands Hawaii provided $353,000 worth of similar emergency financial assistance to more than 270 households. The 385 grants helped 525 adults and 400 children stay in their homes.
Most of the money went to help Oahu families with rent, utility deposits or catching up on overdue housing and utility costs.
“The majority of them were either at imminent risk of eviction or imminent risk of their utilities being shut off, which also puts them at risk of homelessness,” said Jan Harada, CEO of Helping Hands.
Catholic Charities and Helping Hands will now divide the additional $300,000 from Ige’s proclamations and can use it to help both homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless, said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.
“It can be used for both, depending on the need,” Morishige said.
Both organizations require people who get the grants to attend financial literacy workshops to improve their money management skills and come up with plans to make them financially stable after receiving a grant.
“It’s cost-effective to keep a person housed versus having them go homeless and deal with re-housing costs,” said Rona Fukumoto, division administrator for housing assistance for Catholic Charities. “There’s less trauma for the families, especially if there are children.”
As a result of the proclamations that Ige signed last month, Catholic Charities expects to help another 60 at-risk families on the neighbor islands.
Helping Hands receives 100 to 200 calls every week from people inquiring about rent or utility assistance, Harada said.
The number of people on the verge of homelessness is “huge,” Harada said. “It’s heavy. It’s a lot.”
Laura Miller’s 6-year-old daughter, Sterling, has leukemia and last week again was discharged from Kapiolani Medical Center for Women & Children after a bacterial infection.
In the past two years Sterling has been admitted into Kapiolani 15 times.
“This last time she wouldn’t have made it if we had to fly,” said Laura Miller, who used to live on Maui. “She was in shock and had a fever of 109. Her organs were shutting down.”
The Millers used to live in Kaanapali, where Laura managed the spa at the Kaanapali Marriott.
But it was scary rushing to Oahu for Sterling’s medical emergencies. So Laura quit her job and 18 months ago moved to Oahu, where she generates income by making jewelry and gets food from the Hawaii Foodbank Inc.
Helping Hands Hawaii provided the first month’s rent and utility costs of $1,900 so the Millers could rent a two-bedroom apartment within walking distance of the hospital.
For Miller her choice came down to possibly becoming homeless on Oahu or putting her daughter’s life in jeopardy by staying on Maui.
“If it meant putting my daughter’s life at risk or being homeless, I would have been homeless,” she said.
Like Ortega, Miller is grateful to organizations that work to prevent people like them from having to live in a shelter or on the street.
“I can’t say enough,” Miller said. “I don’t even know where to begin. I never needed to seek assistance before, and I never even heard of programs like this. But they are amazing.”