Gov. David Ige wants Aloha United Way to build on its existing efforts to combat homelessness by funneling $5 million of state money throughout the islands over the next year with the goal of immediately helping 1,300 households get off the streets or avoid becoming homeless.
Much of AUW’s efforts over the next year will go on behind the scenes and won’t be readily obvious, such as giving one-time financial assistance to homeless people — or those at risk of becoming homeless — so they can cover needs such as first month’s rent or utility bills.
But Cindy Adams, AUW’s president and CEO, said the goal is to build on existing AUW programs and merge them into the ongoing work by social service agencies on all islands to better coordinate and focus everyone’s efforts.
“For us the big push is prevention,” Adams said. “We have conversations all day long about the homeless problem — that’s what everybody says is the biggest problem in the state. If we don’t focus on prevention, we will always be trying to address the problem.”
Ige last year issued an emergency homeless proclamation that loosens procurement and other regulations when it comes to addressing homelessness. The state Department of Human Services then approached AUW with the idea of expanding some of its projects focused on homelessness, such as better utilizing AUW’s 211 phone system, which people call to get help for a range of problems.
AUW will have to figure out how to better process 211 callers who are homeless — or at risk of becoming homeless — and then steer them to the best social service agency that can help.
“We want to divert and prevent homelessness,” Adams said. “How can we leverage 211 to serve as this central coordination point? It will require new processes and changes.”
Aloha United Way, like its sibling United Ways around the country, also already administers Federal Emergency Management Agency money every year to help with one-time rental and utilities assistance and to fund community food banks.
On Oahu, AUW administers about $80,000 worth of FEMA money to go to one-time rental and utility assistance for some 60 to 80 families, said Norm Baker, AUW’s chief operating officer. An additional $75,000 from FEMA helps 205 food pantries across Oahu, he said.
The state’s $5 million contract with AUW will dramatically expand the assistance across the state. Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, said the $5 million came from the existing budget.
“So DHS reached out to us,” Baker said. “If there’s any way we can help, we want to do that.”
AUW also will be required to contract a study to look at distinct homeless populations — convicts who are just released from prison who often have no identification, financial means or housing; teenagers with no support, and youth who age out of the foster care system; the chronically homeless, who rely on hospital emergency rooms; and those who are discharged from substance abuse facilities.
The goal is to gather hard data that lead to recommendations to better prevent each of the different groups from adding to Hawaii’s homeless population.
“No one really knows the numbers,” Adams said. “We have to find out where the major problems are and identify the major motivators. We have to figure all this out. … We are not sleeping.”
AUW and the state are still negotiating the details of the one-year contract, such as how many people are expected to be helped. When the details are worked out, Baker expects that the contract could begin Feb. 15, with the possibility of a six-month extension.
“We see ourselves as the hub, taking the requests from folks who need help and steering them into the right direction,” Baker said. “We want to add this coordination, instead of just referring them (211 callers) out.”
Baker promised that the state funds will be used efficiently and fast.
“Our commitment to the state is that we will work very quickly to move that money out,” he said.
Even though AUW’s contract with the state isn’t signed, Ige announced his intention in last month’s State of the State address.
“I am also pleased to announce that the state will be investing $5 million immediately to jump-start a new public-private partnership with Aloha United Way,” Ige said. “It will provide direct funding for rapid re-housing, homeless prevention services and establish a statewide referral system. It will also develop long-term homeless strategies to address the needs of the most vulnerable individuals, including unaccompanied youth and those with chronic health concerns.”
Morishige said AUW’s efforts are separate from Ige’s funding request to double the existing budget to add more social workers on the neighbor islands and to double the state’s neighbor island efforts to help with rent and utility costs.
“Service providers say that 25 percent are homeless primarily due to economic factors,” Morishige said. “The intention of the AUW contract is to make resources available as quickly as possible in a way that’s targeted.”
For the longer term, Morishige said, he hopes that better coordination among social service agencies and an improved 211 system “makes it so we have a more centralized system.”
All of the state’s $5 million will go directly to help people, Adams said.
AUW will use an additional $500,000 from annual AUW donations to administer the programs and to help social service agencies with their bigger administrative responsibilities.
“At a very basic level it’s impractical to expect that agencies in the community are going to increase their capacity to address a larger number of homeless people if they don’t receive some sort of funding to offset those costs,” Adams said.
By the end of the contract, Adams expects that the work will result in a more efficient, focused system that ultimately ends up easing Hawaii’s homeless problem.
But she acknowledges there won’t be any high-profile, quick fixes for a state dealing with the highest per capita homeless population in the country.
“Everybody is very frustrated, and this can’t be solved soon enough for everybody,” Adams said. “Shame on us as a community to allow this to get as big as it has. I know that’s not what people want to hear, but it is the reality of the situation.”