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Officials warn budget cuts could unleash a litany of social ills


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POSTED: Monday, March 16, 2009

Hawaii's grim budget figures are not just numbers. They have real consequences: unemployment, fewer support services and higher taxes.

The state's most vulnerable residents could suffer the most if they cannot pay their rent, feed their children or find room in homeless shelters, while rising crime and health problems increase the social burden on everyone.

The latest figures call for another $90 million in cuts to the state budget by the end of June, with total government reductions of $910 million over the following two years.

Lawmakers are proposing that 374 government workers lose their jobs and taxpayers help fill most of the rest of the gap. At the same time, charitable organizations will receive less state money to help feed, shelter and protect the health and well-being of needy residents.

“;More people are coming to us for help, and we're having to turn people away simply because there isn't enough funding,”; said Daniel de Castro, spokesman for the Salvation Army.

There is no easy answer to the state's financial problems, which are caused by the downturn in the economy, which has resulted in less tax money flowing to the government.

Lawmakers said they hope to avoid many layoffs because they could lead to additional problems for the entire state. Savings will have to come from a combination of job cuts, reduced services and tax increases.

“;I didn't want layoffs because people become unproductive citizens, and then you have the domino effect,”; said House Speaker Calvin Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise). “;From unemployment to foreclosures to bankruptcies to child abuse to spousal abuse to alcoholism, you name it. The social ills will occur.”;

Government contracts for support services offered by small businesses often get chopped first, said Nanci Kreidman, chief executive officer for the Domestic Violence Action Center in Honolulu.

“;Victims are going to have fewer options, and they're going to end up staying in homes or relationships with their abusers and face potentially serious injury,”; she said. “;Battered women become homeless because of their escape and their flight. I fully expect we'll see more of that.”;

Social service providers report more people are seeking help for domestic violence, and more are stuck on food waiting lists.

The number of homeless seeking shelter has not increased yet, said Russ Saito, the state's homeless solutions coordinator. He said several factors are holding off increased homelessness, including private and government efforts to stave off the far-reaching disaster of losing a home.

“;When you have bad times, people will get a break with their landlord or live with their families, so they aren't necessarily living on the beach yet,”; said Saito, noting that recently opened shelters have helped.

About $6.2 million in federal stimulus money is coming to Hawaii to assist people struggling to make ends meet and to prevent them from becoming homeless, he said.

At Lanakila Meals on Wheels, volunteers are not able to feed as many senior citizens as food costs increase and charitable donations from the public decline, said Brandon Mitsuda, the program's deputy director.

“;The seniors are going hungry. They have to find other means of finding food, and there's hardly any other food out there,”; said Mitsuda, who marched to the Capitol on Thursday with more than 300 other people to raise awareness of the problem.

There is less help to go around when the need is greater than ever, said Howard Garval, president of Child and Family Services, which runs four emergency shelters for abused spouses and children.

Charities themselves might eventually feel the pain as much as the people they help, he said.