Heading to one of the men’s rooms on the chamber level of the state Capitol Thursday, I almost tripped over a walker with tennis balls parked right outside.
Inside, a man with his pants and underwear around his ankles was in front of a urinal. A second man stood nearby.
What on earth was going on here?
It was then that I noticed both were wearing green T-shirts with the acronym “PHOCUSED” arranged vertically on the back.
“Protecting Hawaii’s Ohana, Children, Underserved, Ederly and Disabled,” the shirts read.
Ah. Got it. The first man was disabled. That was his walker outside. His friend was helping him.
“We’re going upstairs,” the disabled man said to me, smiling. His voice was slurred, and I became uncomfortable.
“See you upstairs!” I replied and hurried out.
I am ashamed to admit that, after four decades-plus on this planet, I still have difficulty with such encounters.
Imagine the discomfort of lawmakers faced with cutting funding to social-service agencies that help these people and many others in need.
That’s why PHOCUSED gathered its members and supporters — some with walkers, some in wheelchairs — Thursday in the Rotunda, most wearing green, all fighting to protect their share of the haupia.
How Much More Sacrifice?
It’s the second time this session that PHOCUSED — a nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to raising the “visibility of and investment in children and adults in Hawaii who are marginalized, impoverished, and underserved” — has rallied.
The first was Jan. 24, the day Gov. Neil Abercrombie delivered his State of the State address. Just moments after calling for shared sacrifice to meet a budget deficit, Abercrombie briefly addressed PHOCUSED — among the many groups that would be severely impacted by the belt-tightening he had just called for.
I wrote an article that day titled, “In Righting the Canoe, Who Gets Thrown Overboard?” That was when the deficit was around $750 million. It’s now $1.3 billion.
“The question is strategic — more cuts or revenue?” Jerry Rauckhorst, president and CEO of Catholic Charities Hawaii — a PHOCUSED member — told me at Thursday’s rally. “The reality is that you are not going to be able to cut your way out of the budget. It’s up to them (lawmakers) to decide.”
Catholic Charities saw its state funding drop about $1.5 million year over year to around $20 million.
“We can’t cut anymore,” said Rauckhorst. “People are falling through the safety net.”
Another PHOCUSED member, Howard Garvel, president and CEO of Child and Family Services, told me much the same. His group gets about $18 million annually in state support, and he’s worried about Abercrombie’s recent announcement that he will order state agencies to look for another 10 percent in cuts.
“We talk about dollars and cents, but we’re dealing with people’s lives,” he said. “I shudder to think what will happen.”
Filling Galleries, Visiting Offices
Pat McManaman, director of the Department of Human Services — the department charged with helping many social-service agencies — told the PHOCUSED crowd gathered in the Rotunda that “funding is essential. … It puts food on tables. … It makes public housing safe.”
But, she added, “The Legislature has a challenge. This is a difficult session.”
Echocing her boss, the governor, McManaman said, “The entire state has to share in the burdens. It’s only fair.”
However, in the view of PHOCUSED, their members have already given up more than others. To drive that point home, they want lawmakers to directly encounter the people Human Services and other state departments help.
That’s why Executive Director Alex Santiago instructed his members after the rally to fill first the Senate gallery and then the House as a reminder that legislators “have to find the courage” to fund social services. Later, they went door to door on the upper floors.
“We have to raise our voices,” Santiago explained.
Lawmakers and executives were receptive. They include Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who welcomed them into his office, and Suzanne Chun Oakland, chairwoman of Senate Human Services, who in the Senate chamber thanked Santiago — a former colleague — by name for all his work.
That same day at the Capitol I also ran into a small-business lobbyist waiting for an elevator. Like Santiago, she has been at the Capitol a lot this session.
“Were you at the hearing when WAM killed the GET increase?” she asked. “It was weird. Three senators walked in at the last minute and it was over.”