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StarBulletin.com

State should fund Hawaii's agencies of last resort first


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POSTED: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

We all understand the legislative challenge that lies ahead: the need to balance the budget while preserving a safety net for the most needy. Last week the Star-Bulletin reported Rep. Marcus Oshiro, chairman of the House Finance Committee, as saying that it is not likely that nonprofit and charitable organizations will get any state money this year. As the head of one of the many nonprofits that serve the vulnerable, I think it would be helpful for the people of Hawaii to better understand the depth and magnitude of that vulnerability as we encounter it every day in the work we do.

                       
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In 2008 alone, Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii and the corps of dedicated lawyers and others who give generously of their time received 13,000 calls for legal assistance from people throughout the islands. Our volunteers collectively donated close to 6,000 hours. Through them we were able to show those who found themselves suddenly homeless or jobless that while one door might have closed, there were options to be explored and windows to be opened through which redress, assistance or opportunity might enter. The funding we are asking for from the state to continue this work is a fraction of the monetary value of what our volunteers donate in time.

  More than anything else, we provide a listening ear and hope to those who have come to believe that they have nowhere else to go. The people who knock on our doors every day do so because they cannot afford to go anywhere else to seek the professional help they need to keep a job, to keep a roof over their heads or to keep their children or parents safe and healthy. We try to respond not just by offering legal advice, counsel and representation, but by helping them to better understand what the limits and scope of their options are.

Our lawyers don't just dispense legal assistance or prepare cases for court. Sometimes our lawyers help people understand that they have no legal case—that they must embark on a new course and take charge of their lives in new and inventive ways. We help them assume greater responsibility for their lives, and in so doing we hope we are keeping from adding to the backlog of cases awaiting attention in an already overburdened justice system.

We understand that like many other nonprofits, we must compete for scarce funds. But as an agency of last resort, we ask the people of Hawaii and our legislators to remember that choosing not to fund an organization such as Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii is to invite even greater adversity and suffering than we have seen to date. We must prevent things from getting worse if we are to create hope and a real environment in which things can get better. That means ensuring that the least among us and the most needy in our midst have the first call on our conscience, our wallets and our time.

It's not just a moral imperative; it makes excellent public policy. Proper funding of organizations providing critical social services and the safety net the most vulnerable need minimizes the likelihood of high, long-term costs and the inevitable community dislocation that springs from short-term neglect. It's the base price of ensuring a healthier community for all of us.

 

Moya Gray is executive director of Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii and a commissioner with Access to Justice Commission, which helps low- and moderate-income residents gain access to legal services.