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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Proven programs can ease our problems

By Michelle Takemoto

Our homeless crisis is one of the most extreme and devastating results of our housing shortage. But another, less visible result is the growing number of people living in poverty.

As a greater proportion of people's incomes goes to housing costs, less money is available for necessities such as food and healthcare. Poverty sometimes brings with it the ills of crime and drug addiction, which can overwhelm communities, as we have seen with the ice epidemic.

While this might seem like a hopeless downward spiral, there are proven programs already in existence that can help to break the cycles of poverty, violence and addiction that affect too many of our families.

Maui Economic Opportunity (MEO) is a community service agency that promotes economic development and provides educational and social services to underserved communities on Maui. One of MEO's programs is the BEST Program (Being Empowered and Safe Together), which works with individuals in prison, giving them the training and resources they will need when they transition back into society.

Since 2004, it has partnered with the Eisenhower Foundation in expanding the program to include a long-term residential program for ex-offenders upon release. Participants receive help with their job skills and life skills, along with academic education, business training and cultural education through the program's hula halau. The BEST Program is a replication of one of the Eisenhower's most successful programs, Delancey Street in San Francisco.

The Eisenhower Foundation has worked for 25 years to bring solutions to the many problems facing this country's disadvantaged communities. Now, it hopes to bring more of its solutions to Hawai'i.

The core of the foundation's solution is five interrelated and research-proven public education and training programs for at-risk youths and adults and ex-offenders: Youth Safe Haven-Police Ministations; Full Service Community Schools; Quantum Opportunities; and Argus Learning for Living and Delancey Street.

The Youth Safe Haven-Police Ministation program serves kids from elementary through high school. Police, along with teachers, parents or other adult members of the community, mentor kids in various afterschool activities. Tutoring and homework assistance, extracurricular activities, job training and service activities are among the programs offered.

A 2005 study funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Hawai'i has one of the highest rates of idle teens ages 16 to 19. The Safe Haven would keep these kids out of trouble during the highest-risk afterschool hours, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Another initiative, Full Service Community Schools, helps students to be better equipped to learn. Nonprofit youth development organizations are placed within the schools, helping to coordinate services such as extended day programs, healthcare, nutrition and counseling. And there is a strong focus placed on parental involvement.

Schools with these programs in place have experienced increased homework completion, better attendance and improved behavior and academic performance.

For those youth who still remain at risk when they arrive at public high school, Quantum Opportunities improves grades. That reduces the risk that students will get into trouble, increases the likelihood of graduation and improves the odds that they will pursue post-secondary education. This intensive, multifaceted four-year program is structured around afterschool mentoring and computer-based learning. Activities are focused not only on improved academics, but personal development and community service.

Those who do still drop out of high school can turn to Argus Learning for Living. This project provides at-risk teens and adults with a family-like environment with programs that help them to secure GEDs, life-skills training, job training and placement in jobs with upward mobility. Most program participants have substance-abuse issues or come from families where that has been a problem this program is particularly relevant in the face of our ice epidemic. It has been proven to help keep people out of prison and off welfare, and enables them to be productive members of society.

For those who slip through all the cracks and end up in prison, Delancey Street, like the BEST Program, reintegrates them through GEDs, life-skills training, job training and job placement. Delancey Street is arguably the most successful enterprise in the nation for reintegrating, educating and training ex-offenders. Delancey Street is an entrepreneurial model in which the residents manage many enterprises that provide hands-on training while also generating enough revenue to make the organization self-sustaining.

The business training schools at Delancey Street include a three-star restaurant, a moving company, a cafe/bookstore/art gallery, automotive shop and Christmas tree sales. The businesses generate $4 million a year in revenues, and the program has garnered accolades from every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter and from Pope John Paul II.

With Hawai'i's prisons bursting at the seams and more prisoners being shipped off to the Mainland, reintegrating former prisoners as functioning members of society would keep us all safer by preventing them from returning to a life of crime. And it would free a large portion of the state's tax dollars by eliminating the costs associated with returning them to prison.

These programs are already up and running in different locations throughout the nation. The Eisenhower Foundation has the resources and is eager to help start them here. As a community, we need the imagination, intelligence and compassion to see that this is in the best interest of all of us. We need the public and nonprofit sectors to work with the foundation, for the common good of us all.

Michelle Takemoto is a member of the Jobs Committee for FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity) and a member of Kilohana United Methodist Church. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.