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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 2, 2006

Grants to nonprofits aren't pork-barreling

By Rep. Michael Kahikina

At night, when it rains in Wai'anae and Nanakuli, my family and I go down to the beaches whenever we can and look for the homeless kids. Their lips are purple and their teeth are chattering. They are cold and hungry, and we gather them together to feed them hot soup and bread. I can see with my own eyes that after years of appropriating taxpayers' money toward homeless programs, the problem is not getting better; in fact, it has reached a crisis level.

I am not blaming the Housing and Community Development Corporation of Hawai'i (HCDCH). It does the best it can, but this is a complex problem, and we need to start doing and thinking about things differently.

Therefore, it is important that I respond to your May 22 editorial, "Legislature shouldn't pork-barrel grants," because what we are trying to do with these grants is not pork. Hawai'i's homeless crisis is too big and too important to play politics.

The Legislature decided to spend funds for the homeless through grants-in-aid for one reason only: to better our chances of eliminating homelessness. During the summer and fall of 2005, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Housing and Homeless traveled across the state, meeting with homeless advocates, developers, community leaders and nonprofit organizations, soliciting ideas on how we can take action and work quickly to help homeless families.

While everyone agreed that the problem is critical with no quick fix, very few innovative solutions were presented to us. The task force recommended that $20 million be set aside for homeless and transitional housing. But, it also suggested an important change that the funds be allocated through grants-in-aid to nonprofits that propose creative solutions that could be implemented in the near term.

This speaks to our concerns that the request for proposals (RFP) process has drawbacks. For one thing, it is a cumbersome and lengthy process. By the time the proposals are selected and contracts are finalized, months if not years pass before the projects are implemented. Smaller nonprofits do not feel they are able to compete with the large mainstream organizations, even though they may have great ideas. Most importantly, we need to see better results, plain and simple. Why not take a chance and see how innovative the nonprofit community can be through the grant process?

House Bill 2176, the omnibus housing bill, took all of the stakeholders into account. The Legislature appropriated over $20 million, fulfilling the recommendations of the task force. We recognized that the homeless problem needs to be attacked from all fronts, not just through grants, and the funding allocation reflects that strategy.

For grants-in-aid, $2,128,081 went to nonprofits to operate homeless programs and shelters, with $9,855,500 to renovate or construct transitional housing and emergency shelters. My office called every single nonprofit agency that we were aware of to let them know that the Legislature would be awarding grants for homeless programs, and HCDCH did the same. As it turned out, many faith-based organizations serve the homeless as part of their charitable goals. I assure you that we looked exclusively at the merits of the proposals and did not include or exclude an organization because of its religious affiliation.

We explained that we wanted to see some new, innovative ideas on how to help the homeless, and we encouraged them to think creatively. The applications were screened and reviewed by both the House and Senate Committees on Housing. I'm pleased to report that we were able to fund, at least in part, every proposal that we considered to be reasonable and credible, including some of the more unusual ideas such as using buses and yurts as temporary emergency shelters.

We recognized that some of the mainstream organizations that are used to going through the RFP process did not submit applications for grants-in-aid, but we still wanted to give them an opportunity to receive funding. Therefore, we diverted $5 million that could have been used for grants to the Hawai'i Public Housing Authority to award RFPs to nonprofit agencies serving the homeless.

The Legislature felt it was important for the counties to get more involved in providing homeless solutions. We appropriated $3.2 million for the counties to partner with nonprofit agencies to designate and maintain temporary emergency shelters for the homeless, including facilities at Kalaeloa.

The homeless and affordable housing package was funded this year using part of the state's surplus. We cannot assume that the state will have a surplus in subsequent years, and we do not want to burden the taxpayer with programs that may require funding in the out years. The omnibus housing bill, including going in the direction of grants-in-aid, allows us to fund one-time appropriations that meet the immediate housing needs of Hawai'i's people.

The bottom line is that we felt we needed to be more proactive and re-energize the community in coming up with creative solutions. It's not enough to hope that things will get better. We asked the nonprofits to give us their best ideas, and we are giving them the funds to make it happen.

Rep. Michael Kahikina is chairman of the House Committee on Housing. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.