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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Money for crows? What about people?

By David Shapiro

It was the number $14 million that stood out.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it will spend $14.3 million over the next five years on habitat management and other programs to protect the 'alala, an endangered Hawaiian crow found only on the Big Island.

According to another story the same day, $14 million is also the amount the state spends annually to operate its 47 homeless shelters that served 3,781 people around the state in February alone, a number expected to grow as the economy continues to sink.

Because of the budget crisis, the state may have to scale back its schedule for building 5,000 permanent affordable housing units as part of a long-term homelessness solution.

Yes, the 'alala is critically endangered, hasn't been seen in the wild since 2002 and it's a noble undertaking to save any creature from disappearing from the face of the earth.

And yes, putting the expenditures side by side is comparing apples to oranges to some extent; we're talking about spending by different agencies at different levels of government with different missions.

But still the question needs to be asked: Is this the right time to be pouring more money into habitat for crows and less money into habitat for our fellow human beings in increasingly dire need?

It's not too much to hope that a little perspective be applied in allocating resources whether the resources be federal, state or local and perspective and priorities seem sorely missing as we stumble through the nation's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The federal government is running up the national debt to staggering levels throwing money at everything that moves, while the state which can't constitutionally run a deficit is hacking away at the safety net that protects the neediest among us.

Perspective and common sense would mean more rationally lining up of federal resources that seem so abundant these days with the most pressing needs of the states.

Homelessness is a good example, given the goal set by the federal and state governments a few years ago to end homelessness within a decade.

It's not that nothing has been done; the state has invested more than $40 million in temporary shelters for homeless families and individuals dislodged by cleanups of encampments at Ala Moana Park, Thomas Square and the Leeward beaches.

But the economic crisis has threatened the critical next phase helping the homeless get back on their feet and move from shelters into more permanent affordable housing.

The city has undertaken a major cleanup of Kapi'olani Park, partly to clear out the large homeless encampment there that has raised serious sanitation and safety concerns.

The city's move is absolutely necessary; at a time when the visitor industry that carries our economy is fighting its worst slump in decades, we simply can't have such a major blight at Waikiki's doorstep.

At the same time, we should be able to extend more of a hand to help people who are at the end of their luck find someplace more suitable to go.

What could better serve the federal goal of economic stimulus than putting unemployed people to work building affordable housing for the homeless and providing social services to help the homeless become contributing partners in the mainstream economy?

If we could make meaningful progress on this stubborn problem during this economic challenge, it would really be something to crow about.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.