A Hawaii state representative says it's time state taxpayers give the homeless a ticket home.
Democratic Rep. Rida Cabanilla of Ewa Beach wants Gov. Neil Abercrombie to implement "Return to Home," a pilot program signed into law in June 2013 that set aside $100,000 over three years to buy one-way tickets home for homeless people who are from the U.S. mainland.
But a state human services official said the program might have the opposite effect — it might encourage others from the mainland to buy a one-way ticket to Hawaii because they know they'd get a free ticket back home, courtesy of Hawaii taxpayers.
The number of people living on the streets of Hawaii continues to climb, rising 32 percent over the past five years to at least 6,300, says the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Cabanilla says giving the homeless airline tickets would reduce the ever-growing problem of homelessness in Hawaii and ensure the homeless could reconnect with family and support networks in their home states. It would save Hawaiian taxpayers millions in welfare costs, she said.
However, neither the governor nor the state Department of Human Services, the agency that establishes and administers the program under state law, has implemented 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 [literally, "children of the land"]. 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 of the DHS, said the agency has no plans to implement the program as is.
"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.
She 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 the homeless.
"A Return to Home program is best supported by the community through private donations and individual charities, and not the state," McManaman said.
She said that under the state-funded Return to Home program, the agency was required to create a database to track program participants; secure appropriate travel documentation; screen for outstanding warrants or pending criminal cases; locate family or friends willing to provide housing and support for the individuals on their return to the mainland; provide transportation to the airport; counsel individuals on airport logistics; and ensure that participants also were provided with education on hygiene.
"No additional staffing was provided to the DHS to implement these program requirements," McManaman said.
State Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom, a Republican of Hawaii Kai, said he agrees the program is counterproductive, would not solve any major part of the homeless problem, and would simply encourage more people to come to Hawaii 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.
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