In the last week of February, I distinctly remember driving my boys to school, listening to an NPR report about all schools in Japan closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I leaned over and said, “We will never have to worry about that here,” deflating my then 2nd graders hopes of not having to go to school. March came and went; schools did close. Nine months, 9.6 million cases, 235,000 deaths later, many are left uncertain. Just as we open up to tourism, we also see daily reports of devastating record numbers of positive COVID cases. But Maui has a different public health crisis looming.
I am the Islands of Hope Resource Navigator for Maui County. My main role is linking families to assistance programs, identifying various community programs, and providing concrete supports to reduce the number of children placed in foster care. COVID-19 has evolved my position in many ways, leaving me at times uncertain about where to start first. An essential role for me is being intentionally community-focused and intimately knowledgeable about its needs and giving a voice to the marginalized. I must understand the systems on a fundamental level to navigate anyone through applications and intake processes. One of the most frequent assistance programs people inquire about, even pre-COVID, is rental assistance.
As I write this Maui Island currently sits around a 25% unemployment rate, compared to 2.7% just last year! Jobs are coming back, but many families have few affordable childcare options if offered work, no extra funds for gas to get to work, and uncertainty about unemployment benefits. Rental costs, especially for families needing more than one bedroom, are astronomical, and there are few options for safe, affordable housing. The pandemic has only compounded this. In a recent online survey I posted on the Islands of Hope social media pages, it became painfully clear people are only beginning to feel what will likely be a long term economic downturn for the state. Reading these experiences is a stark reminder of that:
“I’m unable to pay my rent and put food on the table for my kids and get the essentials they need.”
“My husband and [I] separated. Me and my babies been homeless since.”
“The house we are renting from is now for sale, need to move out now! I can’t get any rental assistance because I didn’t stop working, just lost hours due to the mall closing early.”
There has also been a stark increase in levels of stress and anxiety for caregivers. These symptoms are exacerbated by isolation, homeschooling, maintaining or obtaining access to reliable wifi service, uncertainty about keeping food in the house, paying utilities, and fears about catching the virus at work and bringing it home. Perhaps the most frightening part of all of this is many mental health concerns often go undisclosed for fear of child welfare involvement. Many can find some support with various home visiting or family strengthening programs. But as expectations for staff grow, so do their caseloads. That many employees are now tasked with being a therapist, child development expert, resource navigator, housing expert, lawyer, administrative specialist, nurse, teacher, social worker, and on top of that deliver their curriculum to model fidelity is absurd and frankly dangerous.
So, where can we find certainty? What is the plan for families who inch closer to eviction or insurmountable debt? Will there be extended plans to protect our most vulnerable and preserve existing housing? Housing, health, and safety are basic needs for all people. So, where can we find comfort in this time of never-ending uncertainty? The State and the County need to step up. When we move past the end of the year and the CDC and State Moratorium on Evictions we need to have a plan in place to preserve housing for the most vulnerable. And we need to have a serious conversation about the inefficiency of the systems in place, especially for those applying for assistance and the notification process of the application status. If you have questions about programs and services in the community you can qualify for, feel free to contact me! Email: email@example.com Call/Text: 808-419-0781 FB: @islandsofhopemauicounty IG: @islandsofhopemaui