Senator Joy San Buenaventura (D – Puna), is the chair of the Senate Committee on Human Services, which oversees public assistance programs, youth services, long term care, and homelessness services in Hawaii. She is also a member of the Senate Committee on Health and is slated to speak at the upcoming 2022 Hawaii State of Reform Health Policy Conference on Jan. 12, 2022.
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San Buenaventura recently caught up with State of Reform to share some of her legislative priorities ahead of the 2022 legislative session, which convenes on Jan. 19.
Providing support for early child care and education will be top-of-mind for her committee. According to San Buenaventura, the Human Services Committee has received tens of millions of dollars in CARES Act, American Rescue Plan (ARP), and child care grants that she hopes to funnel towards schools.
“[We’re] making sure that teachers will feel safe in the classroom and that students’ parents will feel safe putting their kids into school and that safeguards are in place, because right now, teachers are in a difficult situation. They have to do both in-class learning, as well as the virtual class learning. From what I’ve heard, it is very difficult to have dual types of agendas and curriculum for the classes.”
San Buenaventura also stressed the importance of keeping Hawaii’s homeschooled children safe. Questions about the state’s child protection network came to light after a pair of foster parents were charged with the murder and abuse of their six-year-old adopted daughter.
One way to prevent future tragedies is by introducing legislation to incentivize more social workers to apply for jobs in the child welfare system, said San Buenaventura.
“Because of the long-term vacancy rate, the existing social workers are overworked and overstressed. So I don’t know whether or not shortcuts were made [with that specific case], but obviously, we do need to ensure that we have a full phalanx of social workers.”
San Buenaventura also plans to extend the Ohana Zones pilot project, which has provided temporary shelter and various wraparound services to people experiencing homelessness since 2018. As of September 2021, the project has helped over 5,000 individuals across the state access services or secure permanent housing. San Buenaventura said the project has been a key point of support during the pandemic, especially in providing access to COVID testing.
Advocates for homelessness services initially opposed the program and argued it was more of a temporary solution, unlike affordable housing. However, San Buenaventura said more support came around once the program proved to be one of the only ways for individuals to access behavioral health screenings, Medicaid and SNAP forms, and other wraparound services.
She said of the program:
“One of my priorities would be to extend that pilot project, and hopefully put in a bit more money to ensure that until we could get affordable housing, [meaning] super affordable housing, not just affordable housing for the middle income … [there can be] some kind of rental, temporary, super affordable housing available that we can get them off the streets, and at least get a handle on homelessness.”
The year before the pandemic, Hawaii saw a nearly 20% decrease in homelessness, according to San Buenaventura. Aside from housing support in response to the pandemic, she plans to advocate for continued vaccine distribution and behavioral health support.
“I do hope we do get a handle on the pandemic sooner rather than later, because a lot of lives have been put on hold.”