One of the state’s major homeless shelters is working to get the message out that Hawaii is not a hospitable place if you are homeless, particularly in Waikiki, the state’s major tourist hub.

The Institute for Human Services plans to embark on a public relations campaign to discourage homeless people from the mainland from moving to Hawaii. IHS also plans to fly 120 homeless people living in Waikiki back to the mainland — all part of a larger $1.3 million effort to reduce the number of homeless people in the state’s major tourist hub.

The 120 people would be identified through a vetting process to ensure they are stable and have a plan in place for when they return to their home states, according to the IHS.

Tourists and homeless wait out rain showers in Waikiki as Oahu waits for tropical storm Iselle on August 8, 2014.

A homeless person sleeps on a picnic table in Waikiki.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The majority of the $1.3 million will go toward intensive outreach services to connect Waikiki’s homeless to shelters, housing, employment and medical services.

IHS is still working to raise $400,000 from the private sector to fund the effort after receiving $100,000 from the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association last week. IHS is providing $824,000.

The ultimate goal is to clear the homeless out of Waikiki, where businesses have complained that they are hurting tourism.

The plans are reigniting controversy about the idea of flying the homeless out of state — Gov. Neil Abercrombie rejected such a plan earlier this year. And a PR campaign discouraging people from coming to Hawaii strikes an odd chord for a state that prides itself on its spirit of aloha and a tourism industry that spends millions of dollars every year marketing the state as an attractive visitor destination.

Colin Kippen, the state’s homeless czar, says that such a campaign raises questions about Hawaii’s identity.

“I do think that conversation will have to touch on a couple very sensitive rails and I think a central rail is going to be this idea of what is aloha and how we, those who live here, view what is aloha and what is our message going to be nationally,” said Kippen. “How will that message be delivered in a way which preserves the essence of what aloha is?”

Aloha Only Extends So Far?

The plan’s proponents say that Hawaii needs to counteract the image of the islands being an ideal place to live if you are homeless. Kimo Carvalho, development and community relations manager for IHS, says that the PR campaign will in part focus on counteracting online blogs and forums that encourage the homeless to move here.

As an example, he pointed to a forum on Yahoo where an unidentified commenter lays out his plan for being homeless in Hawaii, which includes pitching a tent on the beach in Waikiki during the day and cruising around on a moped at night.

“If I did do this, would it really be that bad? I’m not taking away or hurting the land in any way, so what’s the big deal?” the person writes. “I also have a lot of money saved up, however I’d rather live the life of a free rover than living in an apartment any day.”

“We found out that many (Waikiki homeless) are transient who made a choice to become homeless, as well as people who became homeless shortly after arriving in Hawaii.” — Kimo Carvalho, Institute for Human Services

Carvalho said that IHS receives about 50 phone calls and 50 emails a year from individuals on the mainland inquiring about homeless services or trying to reserve shelter space.

“We are trying to do an aggressive public relations effort, trying to water down misinformation, basically not making Hawaii be an attractive destination to come and be homeless” said Carvalho, who said that the PR effort will stress how expensive it is to make it in Hawaii.

Carvalho said that the PR campaign will also target media organizations. He said news coverage of the city’s new law that bans sitting and lying on sidewalks in Waikiki is a good example of getting the message out that Hawaii isn’t an easy or hospitable place if you are homeless.

Carvalho declined to say how much IHS intends to spend on PR, noting that he didn’t want it to overshadow the main thrust of the $1.3 million Waikiki outreach program, which is focused on connecting homeless with services, at a time when IHS is trying to raise money from the private sector.

“Saying the cost, honestly that is not sending the right message,” he said.

One-Way Tickets Home

IHS hopes to assist 300 homeless people in Waikiki during the program’s first year. Of that, it hopes to move 140 people into shelters or housing and fly 120 “transient individuals” back to the mainland.

“We found out that many (Waikiki homeless) are transient who made a choice to become homeless, as well as people who became homeless shortly after arriving in Hawaii,” said Carvalho.

It’s not a new idea. State lawmakers have unsuccessfully pushed to implement such a program for years, arguing that it will allow Hawaii to focus its limited funding on local residents.

“If it only serves to relocate homeless to another community than we haven’t achieved any meaningful goal.” — Matthew Doherty, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness

Last year, the Legislature approved $100,000 for a three-year “Return to Home” program that would buy homeless people a one-way ticket out of Hawaii. But Abercrombie refused to release the funding and the Department of Human Services fretted that thousands of people might flock to Hawaii with the expectation of a free ride home.

Critics also say that such programs don’t solve the deeply rooted causes of homelessness and just shuffle the problem off to other states.

“I would be very concerned about whether relocating is resulting in people ending up in a stable, housed situation,” said Matthew Doherty, director of national initiatives for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “If it only serves to relocate homeless to another community than we haven’t achieved any meaningful goal.”

Carvalho said that IHS will work with homeless individuals to “make sure on the receiving end that they have a stabilized situation.”

“We are not doing this to shift the homeless population around,” he said. “That is not what we are doing at all.”

Other states have also experimented with homeless relocation programs. Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City bought hundreds of homeless families one-way tickets back to their home state or country.

Many were longtime New Yorkers who came upon hard times and jumped at the offer to move at no cost, others were recent arrivals who found it was much harder to make it in the city than they had thought, the New York Times reported. Sending the families home was a way of keeping them out of shelters, which cost about $36,000 annually for a family.

Carvalho said that the IHS relocation program would require homeless to work off at least half of their air fare — jobs would be coordinated through the shelter’s employment services.

“We want to instill values in people,” he said. “We are not a handout.”

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