BY MALIA ZIMMERMAN – HONOLULU – Homeless from Hawaii, Micronesia, American Samoa, Thailand and the U.S. mainland are finding nooks in parks, on beaches, aside drainage ditches, in front of small businesses, and even along the Honolulu freeways where in record numbers, they are building their own communities.
While politicians debate various laws and solutions with homeless advocates, tourism leaders and business owners, the numbers of those living on the streets continue to climb, rising 32 percent over the past five years to at least 6,300, according to Department of Housing and Urban Development figures.
Some homeless residents interviewed for this story said they came to Hawaii to visit the islands from the mainland using their monthly government subsidy checks, but didn’t have enough money to return home, or rent a hotel room or an apartment, so have been sleeping on the street.
Now one state representative is urging the governor to use taxpayer money to buy homeless from out of state a ride home.
Rep. Rida Cabanilla, D- Ewa Beach, wants Gov. Neil Abercrombie to implement the ‘Return to Home’ program, a pilot program signed into law last June. The program sets aside $100,000 over three years to buy homeless from the U.S. Mainland one-way airfare tickets to their home state so they can reunite with their families.
Buying airline tickets for homeless from the mainland will reduce the ever growing problem of homelessness in Hawaii by ensuring homeless can reconnect with family and support networks in their hometown, and save Hawaii taxpayers millions of dollars in welfare costs that would have been spent on homeless individuals who have traveled to live in the state, Cabanilla said.
However, the governor has not released the funds and the state Department of Human Services, the agency which establishes and administers the program under state law, has refused to implement the program.
“This appropriation is much needed to decrease the homeless population in our state, to return these stranded homeless individuals from the mainland to an environment of their choosing, and most importantly to preserve these funds for our own homeless kamaaina. Let us implore the Governor to release the money and create the program,” Cabanilla said.
The governor declined to comment and referred all inquires to the Department of Human Services.
Patricia McManaman, director for the Department of Human Services, said at this time the DHS has no plans to implement the program established by the Legislature in 2013.
“The Department of Human Services believes the Return to Home program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii with expectations of a guaranteed return flight home. This expectation is particularly high when the State is managing the program and paying for the ticket,” McManaman said.
McManaman said her agency applauds the Waikiki Improvement Association and its member hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, that are proposing a privately funded Return to Home program for homeless individuals.
“A Return to Home program is best supported by the community through private donations and individual charities, and not the State,” McManaman said.
She noted the Hawaii State Legislature appropriated $100,000 for the Return to Home program, but under the legislation, the agency was required to create a database to track program participants, to secure appropriate travel documentation, to screen for outstanding bench warrants or pending criminal cases, to locate family or friends willing to provide housing and support for the individuals upon their return, to provide transportation to the airport, to counsel individuals on airport logistics, and to assure that participants also were provided with education on hygiene.
“No additional staffing was provided to the DHS to implement these program requirements,” McManahan said.
Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, said he agrees the program is counter productive, will not solve any major part of the homeless problem and simply encourage more people to come here, or be sent here, knowing they can get a free ride home on the state taxpayers’ dime.
“Politicians always think first, and erroneously, about throwing money – not their own – at problems. All that does is waste money that could be used for better outcomes,” Slom said.
Reach Malia Zimmerman at Malia@hawaiireporter.com