Images by John Hook & Courtesy of The Salvation Army

Most Maui county residents recognize Maui Economic Opportunity for its buses, which are easily mistaken for hotel shuttles, with a pink plumeria poking out of the capitalized “O” of its acronym, MEO. The island’s public transportation system is a mix of the county’s fixed routes, tourist vans, and hitchhikers sharing space in the back of pickup trucks; MEO takes care of the rest: buses for schoolchildren, elderly, and the disabled, who would otherwise be left sans transportation. MEO’s buses traverse the three islands that comprise Maui County: Maui, Lāna‘i, and Moloka‘i.

A ride with MEO entails more than getting from point A to point B. MEO has been ahead of the curve on what makes an actual difference in ending poverty for decades—a study published by Harvard University found that the link between transportation and social mobility is stronger than that of several other factors like crime, elementary school test scores, or the percentage of two-parent families in a community. The longer the average commute in a given county, the worse the chances are of low-income families moving up the ladder. Harvard’s study found that geographic agility is directly correlated with economic progress—access to schools, healthcare, and affordable goods all require transportation services. That’s where MEO comes in, providing transportation services to communities who need it most, literally driven by those who need the support of community most. By law, individuals with criminal records must wait three years after their last misdemeanor conviction before applying for a bus driving position; five years if they have a felony record. This is not the case with MEO drivers. For them, it’s a chance at a career—and a fresh start.

“Ah yes, transportation services,” says Joe Souki, the speaker of the Hawai‘i House of Representatives for Hawai‘i’s 8th District, which includes part of Maui. Souki was the executive director of MEO for 16 years, through the formative 1970s, and oversaw much of the program’s expansion. “We started with one van we purchased for $9,000 dollars, and by the time we left, we had 50,” he says. “We also did insulation, solar water heaters, nutrition programs, false teeth for senior citizens, Meals on Wheels, congregate meals, mental health programing, even Planned Parenthood—one of the first in the state.”

The Salvation Army FLUX Hawaii

Driving onto the three-acre lot of MEO in Kahului, it’s easy to mistake the place for a governmental agency. Past the first complex of buildings, maintenance men mow lawns, disabled clients queue for the bus, and workers with IDs on lanyards chat with elderly clients seated on benches. MEO was created as a private nonprofit community action agency and was organized under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which was initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson. As part of the broader War on Poverty, community action agencies were developed across the United States as a sort of political hand up rather than hand out. The rear two-story building hosts the organization’s five departments: business development, early childhood services, community centers, youth services, and transportation services. Besides the lot in Kahului, MEO owns an 11-acre macadamia nut farm in Waiehu that serves as a job skills facility, as well as parking lots to accommodate a fleet of more than 80 buses, vans, and cars.

In 2003, faced with increasingly overpopulated prisons, Maui County commissioned MEO to study what the basic needs were of those individuals returning to society after incarceration. Based on its study, MEO extended a program to former inmates, providing them with the things advocates have been requesting for years, like developing a county-specific workbook with recommendations on best practices; setting up a work furlough program, which takes advantage of the connections MEO has with local businesses to create employment opportunities for former inmates; and coordinating with other nonprofits to provide continuing care. The program also supplies simple yet vital, daily necessities: “ID, clothing, a few dollars to get to the next place, a home for a month,” explains Bishop Pahia, an MEO caseworker with decades of experience working at Maui Community Correctional Center. “Basic stuff keeps people off the streets.” A major yet easily soluble problem for ex-offenders who are leaving incarceration has been identification, as an ID is necessary to procure basic services, jobs, and housing, and helps to keep the heat off when a parolee is stopped by police. A law to provide departing inmates with basic documents has yet to be passed. Instead of waiting around, MEO got the county to accept enrollment with MEO as a means of meeting the requirements necessary in order for parolees to procure identification. As a result of these cost-effective solutions, Maui’s recidivism rates for ex-offenders is the lowest of all the islands.

The benefits of work programs are felt throughout the community. Instead of exacerbating a culture in which ex-offenders are stigmatized well after he or she has done his or her time, MEO mixes evidence-based programming with island-style connecting, focusing on the things necessary to bring an ex-offender back into the community. MEO starts its programming with inmates prior to release, assisting them with educational programs and financial aid forms. Once offenders are out of jail, MEO drivers take them to job interviews, pick them up afterward, and ensure they return home without incident. Many beneficiaries of the program have gone on to build successful lives in the community. There are stories of clients who run photovoltaic installation businesses and asphalt companies, and others who have worked for decades as MEO groundskeepers and bus drivers. “The success stories are the ones you don’t remember,” Pahia explains. “They blend back into the community. Mostly because they change the circles, swap out the people they spend time with.”

In Hawai‘i, as in the rest of the United States, the economy itself is dependent on the nonprofit sector, particularly the large, decades-old organizations that have provided their services for generations. In 2014, nonprofits contributed 5.3 percent of the nation’s entire GDP, or roughly $890 billion. In the islands, where the global 1 percent has invested in vacant properties for the last several decades, nonprofits have continued to provide essential services, largely through grants provided by the federal government. There are specific programs for children and new mothers, school children, the elderly, Native Hawaiians, specific immigrant populations, the homeless, those returning from incarceration—all pulling from discreet, separate funds determined by lengthy grant requests, competing interests, and interval funding timelines.

In this environment, nonprofits continue to develop and enhance programs with federal and private funds. Founded in the islands in 1894, The Salvation Army is another such example. The headquarters of its Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division is off Mānoa Road. Its 10-acre plot serves the Hawaiian Islands, Guam, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands. Mānoa Valley residents know the turnoff as the site of the Waioli Tea Room, which closed in December 2014 after decades of service and was originally conceived as a skills-development site by the organization. In Hawai‘i, The Salvation Army invests nearly $37 million annually in programs and services. “We have over 55 years of working with those who have addictions in Hawai‘i,” says Major John Chamness, divisional leader for The Salvation Army Hawaiian and Pacific Islands Division. In a uniform with a white “S” on a crimson hexagon on the upper collar of his coat, he explains the global organizational model: “Our regional programs must all be self-sustaining. We do this through determining the specific needs of places through relationships with local government and other service providers.”

The Salvation Army FLUX Hawaii

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The Salvation Army is dedicated to helping end systemic poverty. The international organization’s Pathway of Hope program, developed in 2015, is set to be the largest treatment program in the Pacific, intended to help families break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and drug addiction by assisting them in securing stable jobs and housing, and in becoming contributing members of the community. What differentiates the program from others is its scope: Only large nonprofits, with vast holdings and decades of relationships with local governments and other organizations, are capable of providing what service providers call a “continuum of care,” a comprehensive system that tracks individuals over a longer period of time while providing multi-level services.

“The Salvation Army does drug treatment for individuals in the facility, and has found that treatment programs are more successful than incarceration on its own,” Chamness explains. “People need a friend to walk alongside them through treatment programs.” Focusing on providing a community of support and accountability, the Pathway of Hope program guides, who are similar to life coaches, will partner with and work alongside individuals, rather than do the work for them. The wait list for the program is lengthy. The organization’s goal is to have 50 families and individuals participating in the initiative within its first year in 2016. They are also looking into developing clean and sober living houses, proven to keep many marginally housed individuals with addictions off the streets, and which are nearly non-existent on O‘ahu.

Solutions for combating increased economic inequality remain politically charged conversations, made infinitely more complicated considering the nonprofit sector. As a result of American politics, a government agency is often not the place where the poor receive needed services. Instead MEO and The Salvation Army are the kinds of organizations that fill this need—large, generational nonprofits thoroughly tracked and vetted by a complex competition for governmental funds. The quasi-governmental nonprofit arrangement is unique to the United States, where a deep-seated tradition of individualism and an ingrained hostility toward centralized institutions halt the worldwide movement toward predominantly governmental assistance to the poor. The benefits of citizenship of other large, industrialized nations—including access to basic healthcare, early childhood and college education, affordable housing, and a criminal justice system that does not rely on mass incarceration—continue to be debated in the United States. But the fact that the historic political critiques of services to the poor—which were prevalent at the outset of the creation of MEO and organizations like it in the 1960s—are prevalent today, means that the wheels behind large non-governmental nonprofits will continue to turn round.

This story is part of our Companions Issue.