As lawmakers grapple with $1B shortfall, advocates urge them to preserve social safety net

As lawmakers grapple with $1B shortfall, advocates urge them to preserve social safety net

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As lawmakers prepare to grapple with a $1 billion budget shortfall when they reconvene Monday, advocates for the poor are warning them not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Policy experts say the homeless crisis the state is dealing with today can be blamed — at least in part — on the decisions that were made a little more than a decade ago during the Great Recession.

Back them, lawmakers slashed funding to non-profits and decimated the state’s mental health system.

The count of homeless in Hawaii now exceeds 4,000. Some simply don’t make enough to cover rent, but others are battling addiction or are consumed by mental illness.

Years of aggressive outreach and a slew of new programs and affordable housing projects haven’t undone the damage, advocates say, of those social service cutbacks made during the last recession.

According to the statewide homeless “point-in-time” count, between 2009 and 2016 Hawaii’s homeless population swelled by 2,139 people — nearly a 36.9% percent increase.

“History has taught us a lot,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, a consortium of social service agencies that help the homeless.

Thielen says cutting critical services that provide people with food, housing, medical and mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment would turn the state’s current homeless crisis into a catastrophe.

“The amount of job loss that has occurred within the last month is so much higher than what we experienced in 2008 and 2009,” said Thielen.

“So the more effort we can put in right now to stabilize people quickly the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

Monique Yamashita, who heads up Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers on Maui, agrees.

“The funding our homeless shelter receives from the state is critical to continue services for those in need, any funding cuts to our programs would be devastating to the guests we serve and set us back years," she said.

Government policy experts also say that now is the most important time to fund services that will keep vulnerable families afloat. “Typically the state can’t run a deficit. But in cases of emergency and this is certainly an emergency -- they can borrow and the interest is as close to zero as it will ever be,” says Beth Giesting, director of the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center.

Giesting added cutting the budget will only delay the state’s economic recovery. “In times of recession, when private businesses are not investing in the economy, only government can do that,” she said.

But the money has to come from somewhere. And protecting programs could be mean difficult decisions elsewhere, including with raising taxes or pay cuts for public workers.

Copyright 2020 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.