The recent news that our city and state agencies are unable to get federal money out the door to help people with things like electrical bills and rent is simply maddening. By some accounts, nearly $900 million is still waiting to be spent before Dec 31 and all signs are that the state appears unable or unwilling to spend it. Our elected leaders tell us that the money will not go back to the federal government but instead will be poured into our unemployment insurance trust fund. This makes no sense to us at St. Elizabeth’s in Kalihi where the despair of struggling families is visible daily.
For the last 10+ years, one of the services that St Elizabeth’s provides is small rent and electrical help to those in need. Every Tuesday, people line up and, depending on what we have received in donations, walk away with a check for $25, $50 and sometimes $200. Even in good times, the need is endless. The pandemic has pushed that need to the extreme: thousands have lost jobs, have not yet received unemployment compensation, and are at the mercy of landlords who, despite mandates to the contrary, issue eviction notices.
While I understand the need to ensure that monies are properly spent, I don’t understand why more efforts aren’t being made to infuse those monies into places like our church which have a long history of handling such fiduciary duties responsibly and quickly.
Endless documentation has only resulted in bottlenecks and a failure to get help out fast. It is going to result in a mass of evictions when the moratorium ends. It will translate into real financial harm to many, including landlords, who themselves need the rental income to pay their bills. We see that harm reflected in the growing numbers of people who come to the church daily looking for help because other doors remain closed, often with no explanation given.
While we encourage those in need to apply for government funds through the relatively few social service agencies authorized to disburse those funds, I can’t tell you how many people have applied but heard nothing for months. It is heartbreaking to be unable to help them simply because we are out of funds.
Hawaii’s response to this pandemic has been haunted by a lack of imagination. When it comes to rental and electrical assistance, a little imagination could go a long way towards helping a great many. If, in these very abnormal times, we acknowledge the need to depart from “normal” –i.e. slow and creaky–bureaucratic practice, we can ensure that the CARES money actually gets to struggling families.
Why not ask our churches and other long-standing nonprofits to manage $5000 or $10,000 in federal funds to help folks pay for rent or electric? That can be done with a simple one page agreement to ensure that the funds are properly sent to landlords or the electric company directly. Can’t a simple log of those helped be maintained for record-keeping purposes? Can’t checking accounts, like pastoral accounts or poor folks accounts already set up to serve the public, be used as the repository for such funds?
We need to move quickly. Not only are people being crushed under a mountain of debt, but the day is soon coming when unspent funds will have to be returned or, put away into some account that does not address immediate needs. Here in Palama we are ready, willing and able to pitch in. Is the state? Is the city?
First published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Sunday November 22, 2020.Reprinted here with permission.