OHA Responds to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Nākai‘elua Villatora, manager at Rising Sun Organic Farms, assists with providing fresh produce to Mālama Kaua‘i to share with kūpuna. – Photos: Courtesy

All of our lives have changed radically in the past six weeks. The world-wide outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in millions of people falling ill across the planet. As of late April, there were more than 2.7 million confirmed cases of the disease, and more than 190,000 people have perished.

The scope and breadth of the COVID-19 pandemic is unparalleled in our lifetimes. The last time the world saw anything approaching this scale was more than one hundred years ago during the “Spanish Flu” pandemic which began in 1918 and lasted a grueling two years. More than 500 million people (about one-third of the world’s population at the time) became infected and some 50 million people died in three horrific “waves” of the disease.

Thanks to advances in medical technology and treatment over the past century, we can be reasonably hopeful that the world will not see the same level of devastating loss. However, COVID-19 is nonetheless a serious and dangerous threat to everyone.

Beyond the fear of the disease itself, the impact on the daily lives of ordinary people has been unprecedented as we try to prevent the spread of the disease here in Hawai‘i and elsewhere. Required face-mask use, lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and curfews have completely altered our normal rhythms. Closures of non-essential businesses and the resulting furloughs and lay-offs have crippled the economy and ravaged the personal finances of many families. And shortages of basic food and household items from rice to milk to toilet paper, the result of hoarding and panic-buying, has only compounded our collective stress.

In the midst of this chaos the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has looked proactively for ways to support our lāhui and use our resources and influence to help everyone get through this crisis.

OHA Collaborates to Help Feed Kūpuna

One immediate concern is food security, particularly for some of the most vulnerable members of our community: our kūpuna. To address this need, in early-April OHA appropriated $450,000 to launch Kaiāulu Meals, a partnership between OHA and a statewide network of community organizations to deliver 12 weeks of locally-sourced food to nearly 1,500 kūpuna in need across the pae‘āina (see related article).

“The kūpuna are the foundation of the ‘ohana, and our ‘ohana are the foundation of the community,” said OHA Chair Colette Machado. “By taking care of elders, who are the most vulnerable to this disease, we take care of our ‘ohana, thereby taking care of our community.”

OHA’s Kaiāulu Meals program is supporting the efforts of 13 community-based service providers to distribute enough food for three meals per week to Native Hawaiian kūpuna, ages 60 years and older. The groups have worked with their communities to identify kūpuna with the greatest need. The program will distribute thousands of meals and hundreds of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) food packages every week to kūpuna on every island.

The origin of Kaiāulu Meals is rooted in the self-sustainability of our communities. Early on during this crisis, a number of organizations assessed the immediate needs of their communities and identified food insecurity as a major issue facing ‘ohana and especially kūpuna. These community groups, located on each island, quickly stepped up to provide prepared meals and local produce for their communities.

“These groups truly embody the cultural values of aloha, mālama and lōkahi,” said OHA CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey. “OHA is proud to partner with these organizations and to follow the community’s lead in how to best address their needs.”

In addition, these service providers are working with Hawai‘i small businesses and farmers to ensure that meals and the CSA include local products. “Another outstanding part about this program is that not only are we giving our küpuna fresh, healthy mea‘ai, but we are also supporting our local businesses and farmers during these economically difficult times,” said Hussey.

While at-risk kūpuna are the current focus of the program, the Kaiāulu Meals program may expand as community needs evolve and new partnership opportunities arise. Community groups partnering with OHA in the Kaiāulu Meals program include: Alu Like, Lunalilo Home, Hale Kealoha/‘Āina Hau‘oli, KEY Project, Wai‘anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, Uncle Glenn’s Hawaiian Food, Hawai‘i Rise Foundation, Living Way Church, Hui No Ke Ola Pono, Lāna‘i Senior Center, Mālama Kaua‘i, Nā Maka Onaona and Ka Hale Pono.

Read more about one of our Kaiāulu Meals program partners, Tammy Smith

Advocacy to Prevent Rental Evictions

In a March 31st letter to Governor David Ige, OHA CEO Hussey urged the state government to adopt additional policies to close critical gaps left by the new federal moratorium on evictions in light of the state’s recent emergency orders, in an effort to ensure that all Hawai‘i renters can stay in their homes through the entire COVID-19 crisis.

Hussey noted that rent is due at the beginning of the month for most of Hawai‘i’s renters and asked Governor Ige to provide immediate eviction protection for households that may be unable to pay their rent, but do not qualify for protection via the federal moratorium in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Stability Act.

“While the steps already taken by our Governor and Congress go a long way towards safeguarding the people of Hawai‘i, additional steps to ensure that people can ‘shelter in place’ are needed immediately,” said Hussey.

“This is simply not the time for landowners to evict tenants. Evicting victims of this unexpected crisis, many of whom could be Native Hawaiian, runs counter to the aloha spirit that binds our local community together. It also makes no sense, from a public health perspective, to kick people out of their homes and condemn them to live on the streets during a time when we are being legally required to ‘shelter in place’ to slow the spread of the disease in Hawai‘i. Absolutely no good is served by evictions right now.”

Support for Native Hawaiian Inmates

As a result of overcrowding in state prisons and the enhanced risk of COVID-19 infection due to close confines and inadequate hygiene, the State Supreme Court is considering limited relrease of certain incarcerated individuals. Eligibility requirements for early release of inmates due to COVID-19 include those serving sentences for misdemeanors or petty misdemeanors, pretrial detainees for misdemeanors (other than domestic violence), pretrial detainees for some felony charges, and inmates serving sentences of less than 18 months for some felony offences.

Excluded from consideration for early release are inmates incarcerated for violent offences including sexual assault, or for robbery, burglary or breaking and entering.

To prepare, OHA has been meeting with a coalition of concerned organizations, advocates and service providers to coordinate an emergency response to the reentry of these individuals into the civilian population. OHA has identified three primary areas of need in order to stabilize the reentry process for persons reentering their communities at this very uncertain and dangerous time. These include: securing housing, case management and providing cell phones.

In addition to the obvious need to help reentering individuals secure stable housing and navigate the application processes for benefits like Foodstamps, MedQuest and cash aid, OHA Policy Advocate Kamaile Maldonado notes that along with having a mailing address, obtaining a phone “is absolutely necessary to assist individuals in applying for public benefits, especially now.”

With Native Hawaiians currently comprising 39% of the prison population, OHA is also working with organizations like the UH Medical-Legal Partnership and the Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center to assess the capacity of service-provider organizations and to identify potential funding sources to support non-profit organizations that may be willing to assist these individuals with their reentry. In addition, OHA meets regularly with the Chair of the Oversight Commission, Kawika Patterson, to provide updates on reentry efforts and assist in strategizing as needed.

Support for Native Hawaiian Small Businesses and Non-profits

To better assess the needs of ‘ōiwi small businesses and non-profits, in early April OHA and the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce (NHCC), launched the “Native Hawaiian Business COVID-19 Impact Survey.” The survey closed on April 19th and results will be used to identify the critical needs of small business owners and their staff, and to determine how best to help businesses navigate the current crisis and obtain relief from available state and federal resources. The data collected will also help to inform OHA’s efforts to advocate for Native Hawaiian business owners now and in the future.

OHA and the NHCC also collaborated in mid-April to offer a free webinar panel for Native Hawaiian business owners to share information about the resources available to them for COVID-19 relief including the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, as well as tips to navigate the Federal Grants process.

Panelists included OHA CEO Dr. Sylvia Hussey and NHCC’s Joseph Lapilio, along with Noela Napoleon of the Patsy T. Mink Center for Business, Becky Soon of Solutions Pacific, Esther Kia‘aina of the Pacific Basin Development Council, Andreana Reyes of Lili‘uokalani Trust and Ku‘ulani Keohokalole of People Strategies, LLC.

Emergency Financial Assistance Grant

OHA’s Board of Trustees recently approved and awarded $1.66 million ($830,000 each in FY20 and FY21) to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) for an Emergency Financial Assistance (EFA) grant.

CNHA was advanced $166,000 in January 2020, to prepare to launch the grant, which has been named the Kahiau Community Assistance Program (KCAP). The grant launched on February 1, 2020. Assistance of up to $1,500 is available to qualified Native Hawaiian applicants for things like rent, mortgage or utility payments.

Although the grant was created and awarded to CNHA prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s availability could not have been more timely. With so many ‘ōiwi furloughed and laid-off, demand for the grant has exceeded expectations, as hundreds have sought this one-time emergency funding to stay afloat in this crisis.

In addition to these community-based efforts, OHA’s Research Department recently completed a report on the needs of Native Hawaiians during the pandemic. To view the report “Analysis of the Potential Needs of Native Hawaiians During the COVID-19 Crisis” click here.

Through the duration of the pandemic, OHA staff will continue to monitor and analyze federal and state legislation relating to COVID-19 relief and aid, to identify ways for our beneficiaries to access these resources.

Finally, OHA has updated its website with a page devoted to providing current information and resources related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including an island-by-island resource listing and links to resources available through other Hawaiian and community agencies. Check out OHA’s COVID-19 resource webpage at: www.oha.org/covid19.