Friday, August 27, 1999

State of Hawaii

Isle families
scramble to
keep welfare

Able adult recipients must
soon find work, volunteer
or begin job training

By Gordon Y.K. Pang


At Helping Hands Hawaii, Joan Naguwa has seen a steady stream of phone calls since July from welfare recipients looking for volunteer positions that will allow them to continue to get benefits.

"We're trying our best to find placements for them throughout the island," said Naguwa, whose office specializes in pairing volunteers and organizations.

The effort takes on particular importance since the state Human Services Department this week said 1,055 families will not get their welfare checks Sept. 4 because able adults in the families did not meet a deadline to find work or begin job training.

Department officials warned that an additional 1,100 families will lose their benefits in October if they do not meet the requirements by the end of this month, and that the numbers will increase in subsequent months.

In the wake of the announcement, social service advocates are trying to reach as many welfare families as they can to help them keep or regain benefits.

The newly formed Stairway to Employment Program, or STEP, is doing what it can to make sure recipients continue to get welfare payments while trying to teach them job skills, said Stanlyn Placentia, program director for the nonprofit Waianae Community Outreach.

The outreach group and the Waianae district office of the Honolulu Community Action Program led the way in forming STEP to address the full-family sanctions being imposed.

To keep benefits, those in the state's First-to-Work program need to be employed at least 32 hours a month, of which 12 hours can be in the classroom.

Those on the waiting list to get into First-to-Work and who are not employed or active in job training need to meet a "work activity" of at least four hours a month, which may include volunteer work, schooling or job searching.

Placentia said STEP is requiring each adult to commit to at least 16 hours of classroom and volunteer work.

"Seriously, what are you going to gain in four hours a month that's going to get you employed?" she said.

STEP program manager Ed Suka said about 75 people are currently being helped. Those in the program are learning a broad range of skills, from proper grooming to basic computer techniques, he said.

Danette Rayford, the community action program's Waianae district director, said the toughest part has been finding places for volunteers to work. To meet requirements, volunteers must work only for government or nonprofit agencies.

The city's Friends of Honolulu Hale volunteer program, meanwhile, is bracing for an increase in requests for temporary assignments.

"The city is working with state and private agencies to coordinate their efforts to accommodate this group," city spokeswoman Carol Costa said. "We're also exploring the idea of offering basic employment skills."

Social service advocates say typical barriers faced by welfare recipients include a lack of affordable child care or transportation, substance abuse, abusive spouses, and mental illnesses that may not exempt a recipient from working.

The Human Services Department has been criticized for not setting itself up as a referral service to help recipients find volunteer work.

The ones who will suffer the most will be the children in recipient families, said Kathleen Hasegawa, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance.

"You're hurting the children in this situation rather than providing positive or helpful incentives to the parents," Hasegawa said.

Hot line on benefits

The state Human Services Department suggests that families that have lost or are at risk of losing benefits call the Welfare Reform Volunteer Requirement Hotline at 696-5667 for help.

E-mail to City Desk

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