Dozens of media outlets around the world want to know more about a pilot program to send homeless in Hawaii back to their families on the mainland.
Rush Limbaugh railed against the plan on his radio talk show. Jimmy Kimmel cracked jokes on late-night TV. (“How can you even tell who is homeless in Hawaii? No one wears shoes,” Kimmel quipped last week.)
The massive amount of unexpected publicity that has ensued since Civil Beat first reported the story on July 23 has caused state officials to worry that homeless people will flock to Hawaii thinking they’ll have a free ride back.
But on Tuesday, the Department of Human Services decided not to implement the program. The money — $100,000 — will go back to the general fund.
“This is not a function that is appropriate for the State of Hawaii to administer,” DHS Director Patricia McManaman told Civil Beat in a statement. “We are not in the business of relocating homeless individuals and families to other states. If an individual wishes to return home, they should reach out to family members or seek support from charitable organizations.”
The department thought the program was a bad idea from the get-go. McManaman has told state lawmakers year after year that it won’t reduce homelessness, it’ll be expensive to administer and it’s ripe for exploitation by people who want a free one-way ticket.
Despite the department’s objections, the Legislature was finally able to push the program through in May by attaching it to an omnibus bill related to housing midway through the session. It created a three-year pilot program and allocated $100,000 for the DHS to administer it.
Civil Beat composite
Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla
Proponents of the bill, such as Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla, maintain that the program will save taxpayers millions of dollars in welfare costs. They view it as just one tool in the state’s toolbox to address the serious problem of homelessness in Hawaii.
The language in the legislation, however, contained a loophole to let DHS avoid implementing the program. Act 222 says the department “may” coordinate a voluntary homeless assistance pilot program for eligible individuals.
“That was our torpedo,” Mizuno told Civil Beat Tuesday. “The word we should’ve used is ‘shall,’ then they couldn’t hide behind an imaginary wall. We’ll go back to the drawing board next year.”
The $100,000 the state appropriated for the program out of its $23.8 billion budget for the next two years will lapse back to the state general fund.
Mizuno is not letting the department’s decision deter him. He plans to revisit the return-to-home program when the next legislative session starts in January and work with charitable organizations to coordinate donations for trips for interested individuals in the meantime.
Mizuno said he wishes DHS would at least give the program a chance.
“If you don’t want to release the whole $100,000, OK. But to just nix it before we even start, that’s extremely unfortunate,” he said.
Mizuno pointed at other municipalities that have implemented similar programs to simultaneously reduce homelessness, reunite families and save taxpayers money.
CNN, which interviewed Mizuno, reported Aug. 2 that New York City and San Francisco have sent thousands of homeless back to their hometowns and only a few dozen have returned.
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