Hawaii lawmakers hope to save taxpayers millions of dollars in welfare costs by shipping some of the state’s estimated 17,000 homeless back to their families on the mainland.

It’s a controversial idea. Critics point to potential abuse of the program and view it as a Band-Aid approach to a deeply rooted problem.

But supporters see it as a win-win; the homeless get a fresh start in a supportive environment and the state can focus its limited funding on local residents.

After years of trying to institute a return-to-home program, legislators were finally able to squeak a bill through this past session to do a three-year trial run. Although the legal language is now in place to set it up, there’s not much money to maintain it and the Department of Human Services, which would run the program, has serious concerns.

Patricia McManaman, the department’s director, told lawmakers earlier this year that she had reservations about the cost, the “prescriptive language” of the services to be provided, the need to do background checks and liability related to the requirement to obtain a proper ID to travel.

The department also took exception to the suggestion that homeless people are in need of “sufficient personal hygiene.” McManaman said this was an “unnecessary and inappropriate stereotype” to include in the law.

“The DHS will continue to dialogue with the community around these issues,” Kayla Rosenfeld, the department’s spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday. “At the end of the day, however, we remain concerned this program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii with a guaranteed return flight home.”

Lawmakers were able to push the program through by tying it to an omnibus bill related to housing. Reps. Rida Cabanilla, John Mizuno, Mele Carroll and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, among others, led the effort to get the return-to-home program included.

The bill also includes funding for substance abuse treatment, mental health support and clean and sober housing. And it provides money for a rental assistance program and housing programs for the chronically homeless.

Cabanilla said she simply refused to let the housing bill pass through her committee unless the return-to-home program was included.

“Caring for the homeless has become a cottage industry,” she said.

The agencies that run state welfare programs depend on high enrollment numbers to maintain funding and in turn their jobs, she said, so there’s not much incentive to get people off the public dole.

For Cabanilla, it came down to simple math. Even if the homeless return after a few months, she said, the state will have saved thousands of dollars on food, shelter and medical costs.

But it’s not all about the money. Cabanilla said she also has faith in the safeguards in the bill to prevent abuse and believes the homeless will do better in a family environment.

Mizuno has championed the return-to-home program for the past few years. He even donated $100 out of his own pocket to help a Texas woman and her daughter return home to her family in 2011.

In that case, the state had just rejected for the third year in a row a bill to create a return-to-home program. But non-profit groups and anonymous donors who heard about the case came together and paid for Yughette Baker and Cheryl Walter to fly back to Houston.

“There’s a pretty generous welfare system in Hawaii and a beautiful climate, so you have a double hit,” Mizuno said.

“Our diversity binds us, but there’s a finite amount of money for our local homeless,” he said. “It’s just spread too thin, and I say that with respect.”

The state’s $24 billion budget for the next two years includes $100,000 to buy seats on planes and possibly even beds on cruise ships for anyone who meets the requirements.

To qualify, the person must sign an agreement saying they will only participate in the program once and are doing so voluntarily.

The department considers the program too costly and an administrative burden, Rosenfeld said.

Lawmakers acknowledge that it’s hardly enough money to run the program for one year, let alone three. But they hope to prove the concept works with a few successful cases.

“It wasn’t as much as we had hoped for, but $100,000 isn’t bad,” Mizuno said. “If we can show it saves the state money, then the program can grow.”

DHS is talking to service providers, businesses and others to review how best to serve homeless individuals and families who might qualify or be interested in returning home, Rosenfeld said. Some providers say this type of program might best be supported through private donations to charities.

Given the requirements and limited state funding, Rosenfeld said providers are “understandably reluctant” to take on the program.

Mizuno said if the department still has concerns about the return-to-home program, it should contract it out to a nonprofit that understands it.

Victor Geminiani, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, a nonprofit that works on affordable housing issues, said the return-to-home program fills a gap.

“Selectively used, it is a way of providing an appropriate solution for people in a particular situation,” he said. “But the devil is in the details.”

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