Seven months ago, Shaila Taifane was staying in a domestic violence shelter in Honolulu – a single Native Hawaiian mother with a five-year old son, struggling with homelessness.
“The odds were against us,” she said. “I was in defense mode, because I knew that if I failed, I would be failing my child.”
Beginning in the fall of last year, Taifane received a series of breaks, thanks to the help of Hawaiian Community Assets (HCA), a housing program funded in part by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA). The program taught her to manage a monthly budget, rebuild her credit and actively save money. And in February, HCA helped her find a rental home.
It feels so good to just to have someone who genuinely cares about you, to have someone in your corner rooting for you, saying ‘you can do it.’Shaila Taifane
“They helped me pick up the pieces of my life,” Taifane said of HCA. “I don’t know where I would be without them.”
Taifane’s story offers hope to the many Native Hawaiians who are fighting to make ends meet. The economic statistics for Native Hawaiians are grim. While Native Hawaiians participate in the labor force at higher rates than the state average, Native Hawaiian per capita income is nearly $5,000 less than the state average. In addition, Native Hawaiians use homeless services at disproportionate rates, and Native Hawaiian households are more than three times as likely as non-Native Hawaiian households to contain “hidden homeless.” Hidden homeless are individuals who would like to move out but don’t have the resources to buy or rent their own place.
In late June, the OHA Board of Trustees approved $6 million in grants over the next two years to 23 organizations providing a broad spectrum services to Native Hawaiians. Of these funds, $2 million will go to six programs providing housing and income services.
“Our housing and income grants as a collective provide a comprehensive set of services that aim to help improve the economic landscape for Native Hawaiians,” said OHA Chief Executive Officer/Ka Pouhana Kamana‘opono Crabbe. “Our income grantees help our beneficiaries develop skills to increase their earning potential because the cost of living in Hawai‘i is so high that minimum wage isn’t enough. Meanwhile, our housing grantees teach our beneficiaries to better manage their finances to put them on a path that starts with securing rentals and can lead eventually to homeownership.”
While financial literacy training has been a staple of housing programs, individual development accounts (IDAs) are becoming increasingly common. Most of OHA’s housing grantees offer IDAs, which are savings accounts in which the deposits are matched – in this case, by OHA grant funds – to help contribute to home purchase or other housing-related expenses, such as rent.
Home repair training is a unique service offered by Nānākuli Housing Corporation (NHC), another OHA housing grantee. NHC executive director Paige Kapi‘olani Barber explains that home maintenance is important because it protects a person’s most valuable asset – their house. “If your home is in poor condition, you will not be able to get a home equity line of credit, which can be used for medical needs, college and debt consolidation,” she said.
Barber also said that for many of her program participants who are on a very tight budget, an unexpected home repair emergency can quickly destabilize their financial situation. “Being able to fix a kitchen sink on your own instead of
paying a plumber $200 is a big deal for a lot of people,” she said.
Another important service of OHA’s housing programs is the one-on-one attention from counselors, who serve multiple roles for clients, from advocate with their landlords to parental figure holding them accountable.
HCA program director Lahela Williams said that one of their first objectives with new clients is to gauge their commitment. “We tell them if you want it, you have to make it real, and then we are absolutely dedicated to help you reach your goals,” she said.
Barber and Williams both talk about counselors having to impress upon clients that securing stable housing is a long-term commitment that will take multiple years, doesn’t end with the acquisition of a home and includes persevering through unexpected setbacks, which they both refer to as “life happens” moments.
Taifane said she’s grateful for her HCA counselor, Rosalee Puaoi. “It feels so good to just to have someone who genuinely cares about you, to have someone in your corner rooting for you, saying ‘you can do it,’” she said.
While Taifane recognizes how far she’s come in the last six months, she understands the challenges ahead. But her son provides her the inspiration to press on. “My son asks me, ‘Mom, we are not going to move anymore, right?’ I tell him, ‘No, this is our home now,’” she said.