In May, Honolulu pledged up to $1,500 a month to residents who needed help with rent, utility payments and child care costs during the pandemic.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell allocated $25 million from the federal CARES Act for the Household Hardship Relief Fund. But more than three months later, only about $2.1 million has been distributed, his office said on Thursday.

That’s 8.4%.

Overly burdensome application requirements have blocked residents from obtaining the assistance they desperately need, according to Aloha United Way, which is helping distribute the money.

“The level of bureaucracy involved in processing applications is grinding the process to a halt for hundreds of applicants,” said Lisa Kimura, AUW’s vice president of community impact. 

Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the city recognizes the problems with the hardship relief fund and is working to get more money out more quickly to those in need. Courtesy: City and County of Honolulu

If the money isn’t distributed by the end of the year, the city will have to spend it elsewhere or give it back to the feds. 

Honolulu’s interpretation of the federal constraints on the funding is requiring applicants to hand over paperwork that is often difficult or impossible to obtain, Kimura said.

For example, some employers have cut employee hours to zero, but the worker is still technically employed. The city’s application requires an unemployment insurance certification or verification letter.

It also requires bank statements. But thousands of Honolulu households don’t have bank accounts, according to a 2017 federal government survey.

The city also requires “proof of liquid assets” for every adult in the household, according to Kimura, and that can be an obstacle if some household members are uncooperative or unable to produce the records. 

“If you’re a single adult who has a formal termination notice and access to a bank statement, you’re probably in good shape,” she said. “If you have any variation of that, not so much. The bigger the household, the more complexity to their financial situation, the more time consuming it is to process.”

Additional challenges exist when applicants don’t have internet or have language barriers, said Susan Furuta, president and chief executive officer of Helping Hands Hawaii, one of the city’s contracted fund distributors.

Service providers don’t have the authority to waive requirements and need to operate by the book for future audits, Kimura said. And even for people are who approved, Kimura said the city requires that they be recertified monthly. 

Honolulu is trying so hard to prevent fraud and waste that the money is not getting to where it needs to go, according to Kimura. 

“The city doesn’t want to be left on the hook just as much as we don’t if money gets distributed that shouldn’t have been,” she said. “So instead of taking more aggressive approach to distribution, it’s overly burdensome documentation.”

AUW is spending hours trying to process single applications, and the nonprofit is losing money in the process, Kimura said. It subcontracted with other nonprofit partners to take on this task, Kimura said, but half of them have dropped out because they couldn’t afford to continue. 

“This has been just the biggest runaround ever. I’m stuck, and I’m shocked at how little help there is.” Applicant Krista Vessell

Kimura said the city should allow people to receive at least three months of assistance up front. That would cut down on processing time and reduce the workflow for service providers, she said.

It would also help if applicants could “self-certify” that they are experiencing a pandemic-related hardship. Having them sign an affidavit under penalty of perjury would provide a safeguard while cutting down on paperwork, Kimura said.

This is not an unheard-of process,” she said. “It happens in many different ways with other government programs.” 

At a press conference on Wednesday, Caldwell acknowledged paperwork has been an obstacle and said the city is considering issuing cards, similar to debit cards.

“I hope that we can break this logjam to get more money out to individuals along with businesses,” he said.

In a written statement, Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said many of the program’s applicants “require significant case management and processing” to complete an application, and the city’s nonprofit partners have had to hire dozens of new staff and provide on-the-job training.

“As the saying goes, we are all building the wa‘a (canoe) together while paddling it,” she said. “We appreciate our community partners, who we have worked with to make the process more accessible, including increasing the monthly support from $1,500 to $2,500, decreasing some of the documentation requirements, and increasing resources to reach more of our community, who we know are struggling right now.  We anticipate that there will be ongoing need through the end of the year, when the federal funds are eligible to be used, and we expect those distributions to continue to increase.”

The help can’t come soon enough.

Makiki resident Krista Vessell, 36, said she applied for help right after applications opened in May. A former teller at a local credit union, she said she was forced to leave her job because of anxiety and the need to look after her children at home. The mother of three said her family is living off her disabled husband’s social security check, about $1,700 a month.

To this day, she said, she hasn’t received a dollar of help from the Hardship Relief Fund. That’s despite many phone calls, repeated sharing of documents and AUW’s assurances that her application was sufficient, she said.

“This has been just the biggest runaround ever,” she said. “I’m stuck, and I’m shocked at how little help there is.”

The threat of the electricity being turned off or facing eviction is causing Vessell severe anxiety. She was homeless before and said she is “really scared” it could happen again.

Honolulu was quick to start up a profoundly needed program, but the delays in distributing the funds are a huge concern, said Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. 

“Many tenants who have lost employment are struggling to pay their rent, especially after the loss of the $600 per week federal boost to unemployment last month,” he said in an email. “And if tenants can’t pay their rent, landlords struggle to pay their mortgage. The consequences reverberate throughout our entire community.”

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