Photo: Dawny Jones
Dawny Jones, Kahiau Assistant Program Manager. - Photo: Courtesy CNHA

“The Kahiau Program has been able to help over 400 Native Hawaiians pay their rent and keep their utilities running during the pandemic…” —Kūhiō Lewis

Photo: Loi-Mikaele Ross
Loʻi-Mikaele Ross – Photo: Courtesy

Loʻi-Mikaele Ross was living his best life.

The 28-year-old had a good job working as a route supervisor at Alsco. Despite Hawaiʻi’s high cost of living, he was earning enough to secure his first-ever apartment, a one-bedroom unit in Wahiawā.

Then, just when he was about to mark the one-year anniversary of supporting himself and making it on his own, the COVID-19 pandemic hit with its resulting economic crisis, and everything suddenly changed.

“The pandemic has definitely been hard on me,” Ross said. “I got laid off from my job and they said I can’t return to work until everything opens back up 100 percent.”

Kahiau Community Assistance Program

Ross sought help from a COVID-19 assistance hotline, and was referred to the Kahiau Community Assistance Program, administered by the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA) and funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

The grant program provides up to $1,500 in one-time emergency assistance to cover mortgage, rent, rent deposit or utility debts of Native Hawaiians facing financial hardship. Such hardship may include a reduction in hours or loss of employment.

The program was able to cover Ross’ rent for a month and allowed him time to get back on his feet.

“I just want to say thank you to OHA and CNHA because having my rent paid definitely led me to stress less as I was waiting for my unemployment to kick in,” Ross said.

“I’m just trying to stay positive and waiting for this pandemic to end so I can get back to work. My advice to others in this situation is to do your research on programs that help out Hawaiian people, and don’t feel discouraged asking for help.”

“These last months have turned our people’s lives upside down,” said OHA Trustee Chair Colette Machado. “OHA is doing whatever we can to help our families and communities hurt by this crisis.”

In fact, OHA originally awarded a $1.66 million grant to CNHA in November 2019 to administer its existing Emergency Financial Assistance Program, later rebranded the Kahiau Community Assistance Program, which aimed to help Native Hawaiians struggling economically.

In May, facing the COVID-19 crisis, OHA trustees unanimously approved an additional $2.17 million in funding for the program, bringing a total of $3.83 million in emergency relief available to Native Hawaiians.

The program has also provided assistance to beneficiaries like Robert Manning, 51, who has had a run of bad luck resulting in financial hardship. Manning lives with his girlfriend in a Wahiawā apartment, and recently lost his job at a local supermarket.

His girlfriend has a steady job, but she has been out for months on temporary disability insurance. Manning recently lost his mother and has a medical condition which complicates his search for work.

They have fallen behind on rent payments, but through the Kahiau program they were able to have their rent and electrical bill paid for a month.

“We’re still having a hard time and I don’t want to lose my place,” Manning said. “It’s so stressful right now and we just got an eviction notice. Everything hit at once and we’ve kind of hit rock bottom.”

Manning said the Kahiau grant has given them some time to breath.

He has qualified for food stamps and is currently going through the process of applying for welfare. He also expects his girlfriend to return to full-time work shortly.

“This program was the only one that helped me,” he said. “I really didn’t want anyone helping me and I’ve tried to do everything on my own, but I just really appreciated the assistance. I try to take long walks, and I pray every day that something good is going to happen.

“I wrote a letter thanking them for everything, and I told them if it wasn’t for this program we wouldn’t be moving forward at all – in fact we would have been out on the street already.”

New data from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations indicates that Native Hawaiians are losing their jobs during the pandemic at disproportionate rates.

While Native Hawaiians constitute only 19% of the total working-age population of Hawaiʻi, a quarter of all unemployment claimants in Hawaiʻi from the first quarter of the year identified as Native Hawaiian.

Moreover, between late March and late April, the Kahiau program received a 125% increase in applications, demonstrating elevated levels of financial hardship within the Native Hawaiian community.

“The Kahiau Program has been able to help over 400 Native Hawaiians pay their rent and keep their utilities running during the pandemic,” said Kūhiū Lewis, CNHA President and CEO. “For people whose income has been severely impacted by COVID-19, these funds are helping provide stability and peace of mind for families.”

“OHA remains committed to aiding our lāhui,” added Trustee Chair Machado. “We are a resilient people who have persevered through tremendous adversity over the course of our history. We will make it through this by sticking together and eventually come out on the other side stronger than ever.”