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Homeless assistance program faces chop

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    A homeless man drinks water while sitting on the beach at Ala Moana Beach Park located near Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawaii.

A state-funded program that in less than a year helped 1,515 island families stay in their homes — or get off the street and into housing — faces an uncertain future on Friday.

As part of Gov. David Ige’s series of emergency proclamations beginning in late 2015 to address island homelessness, the state Department of Human Services contracted Aloha United Way in April 2016 to distribute $4.7 million to homeless people and those at risk of becoming homeless through one-time financial assistance.

The idea was to divide the money between both groups. However, because many homeless people lack a steady income to be self-sufficient after the aid runs out, most of the money has gone to keep island families in their homes, offering a glimpse of how many people are at risk of becoming homeless, said Cindy Adams, AUW’s president and CEO.

Of the 1,515 families that received financial assistance, 417 were homeless and 1,098 were at risk of losing their homes if they did not get help in the form of one-time rental or utility assistance, according to AUW’s data.

“We just feel so strongly that this funding in the community is critical,” Adams said. “We understand the optics of the chronically homeless in Hawaii and the need for the public to feel like progress is being made in that area. Having said that, if we don’t have a flexible, robust program to prevent people from being evicted and becoming homeless, we will continue to struggle with this problem (of homelessness) in the years ahead.”

Ige originally hoped the money would help 1,300 households. Instead, because people needed an average one-time payment of $1,046, there was money left to help an additional 215 families.

A bill that would continue the program and put it out to bid for a future contract, House Bill 1240, is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Friday. But it’s gotten resistance from Ige’s administration, which created the program to address a time of crisis.

The Ways and Means chairwoman, state Sen. Jill Tokuda, (D, Kailua-­Kaneohe), did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

AUW officials say they are unclear on why the program appears to be losing support.

“There’s a disconnect,” Adams said. “They came to us. This is a program that we know works. They (Ige’s administration) agreed it was very successful, but now there’s no funding.”

Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator, praised the efforts by AUW to help families but said continuing the program will overlap with efforts already underway.

The Department of Human Services is reviewing proposals for a contractor in May to begin distributing $2.6 million in so-called “rapid re-housing” money that is usually intended to get homeless people into housing.

Morishige said those bidding on the contract could propose how to split some of that money off to help those at risk of becoming homeless.

Ige also has proposed adding $3 million for rapid re-housing in the 2018 fiscal year budget.

“We have found resources available for the current fiscal year and are in the process of contracting those resources out for rapid re-housing,” Morishige said.

HB 1240 specifically calls for appropriating state funds “to prevent homelessness and rehouse homeless people in the state.”

“The issue is there is no preventative program for a specific population that we have learned is a key contributor to the homeless population,” said Norm Baker, AUW’s chief operating officer. “There is no current way to fund them … that keeps them in their house.”

The original language in HB 1240 would have provided $3.5 million for each of two years. The bill now includes no dollar amount.

As written, the bill would continue many of the services AUW currently provides, such as its 211 telephone system.

Adams said AUW would be happy to renew its contract — but also would support a different agency that might get it instead. AUW also would offer its 211 services, she said.

The bill also allows the agency that wins the contract to retain 15 percent of the value.

Under its contract, AUW was allowed to provide 9 percent of the contract’s value to help 20 social service agencies distribute the money across the islands. AUW then chipped in an additional $500,000 of its own to help the other agencies.

“This 15 percent is not for Aloha United Way,” Adams said. “It’s for the entire program through the 20 agencies statewide. We contributed 6 percent to keep the nonprofits whole in terms of their operational costs.”

HB 1240 would not dictate what a contractor must do with its 15 percent.

Jay King, program manager for housing community impact for AUW, worries that a program that enabled 1,098 island families to stay in their homes will just stop.

“When this disappears,” King said, “what’s going to be available to prevent the next 700 or 800 families from becoming homeless?”

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