When I was working on my column for last week on the hidden homeless of Diamond Head, a couple of friends said to me, “You realize, don’t you, that cities on the mainland are sending their homeless here on one-way airline tickets?”
This belief has been around for the 20-plus years that I have written news stories on homelessness in Hawaii.
I thought it might be interesting to look at some long-held but mostly false beliefs about homelessness in the islands.
Myth No. 1: State and municipal governments and other organized groups on the mainland are getting rid of their homeless by buying them one-way airline tickets to Hawaii.
Nobody has ever been able to prove that this has happened.
Scott Morishige, the state homelessness coordinator, says he’s been working with homeless people in Hawaii for 15 years.
“I have never seen any evidence of any mainland group or government agency paying for airfares to send homeless people here,” he says.
The state Department of Human Services also says that it is unaware of “any government agencies on the continent that are sending homeless individuals or families to Honolulu.”
However, DHS spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz says about 16 percent — or 1,767 — of the homeless people seeking benefits and services from the state report living in Hawaii for less than five years. And of that number, 615 have been here in Hawaii just a year or less.
So maybe the notion of free air tickets here for the homeless gains traction when Hawaii residents come across mainland-looking vagabonds panhandling in Waikiki or see people looking like they are recent arrivals stretched out on picnic tables in places like Kapiolani Park or in tents under the freeway in Kapahulu.
Scott Fuji, the new executive director of PHOCUSED, a social services agency that works with Hawaii homeless, says that the notion of homeless people being flown in from another state is something that he hears discussed not only in Hawaii but wherever he travels on the mainland.
“In California, some people think their homeless are flown on one-way airline tickets from Ohio,” Fuji says with a laugh. “In Detroit, people say some of their homeless are arriving on tickets paid for by other states; that’s until they think about it, and laughingly realize how ridiculous that sounds. What kind of homeless person would agree to be sent to live in Detroit even on a free airline ticket?”
Former state human services director Susan Chandler says, “I heard that story many times. I even did a piece of research on it at IHS. There was even a senator who told me people get off the plane and go directly to his emergency room in Hilo and get on Medicaid. That was not true and you can’t even get onto Medicaid that way (although an ER would treat emergencies).”
“When we did the interviews we found that most people from the mainland came here with the expectation that they would find a job,” Chandler says. “Many said they had a job lined up (in construction or the visitor industry) when they first got here and then they got laid off. I never heard of a jurisdiction ever buying one-way tickets to Hawaii.”
“We found that most people from the mainland came here with the expectation that they would find a job.” — Susan Chandler, former state human services director
Kimo Carvalho, community relations director for the Institute of Human Services, says IHS has failed to find any truth in the contention that free air tickets have been offered to Hawaii, and it conducts extensive interviews with its homeless clients.
“We have never heard from any of them that a government entity or a private organization paid their way to Hawaii,” he says.
IHS houses 1,500 to 1,700 homeless people each year.
However, Carvalho says he is certain some homeless people arriving here from the mainland have saved up their own Social Security funds and other welfare benefits to use the money to buy their own one-way tickets, not because some government entity or organization paid for the ticket for them.
Myth No. 2. Homeless people receiving services here know they can count on a free airline ticket home to the mainland any time they want to return because the state has a program to pay for the tickets.
Bills to buy homeless people tickets home to the mainland have been rejected in the Legislature for four years.
And in 2013, when the Legislature approved a $100,000 appropriation to send homeless back to the mainland, the program never got off the ground because then-human services director Patricia McManaman refused to implement it.
McManaman called the program “costly and burdensome.”
“We are not in the business of relocating homeless individuals and families to other states,” she said, adding that could be done by the families of the homeless or social service agencies in their home states.
The most recent proposal to enact ”Return to Home” legislation failed in the House Human Services Committee on Feb. 2. Morishige testified against it, saying it would give homeless people the mistaken idea they could come here and get a free return ticket any time they wanted.
Morishige says state money to alleviate homelessness is better spent on Hawaii’s Housing First program, which gets homeless individuals and families off the streets by placing them in subsidized rental units with wrap-around social services to help them adjust.
Private organizations in Hawaii, however, are picking up part or all of the tab to return some homeless to their families on the mainland.
IHS has a pilot program funded by the visitor industry that has sent 133 homeless who were once camping out in the Waikiki area back to their hometowns on the mainland.
The program started in 2014, and IHS has paid $28,475 for the air tickets home, Carvalho says.
“When you consider that each homeless person accepted for the program is required pay for half of his or her airfare, that comes out to IHS paying about $214 per person sent home,” Carvalho says. “It is not a bad deal.”
The most recent proposal to enact ”Return to Home” legislation failed in the House Human Services Committee on Feb. 2.
He says each homeless applicant is carefully selected and must provide proof that someone will meet him or her at the airport and take them home to live with them.
Carvalho says, “This is not about sending homeless people all over the country for free. We look at it as like the partial housing subsidies we offer homeless here. The air ticket is a subsidy to get homeless into housing back in their hometowns on the mainland where they have relatives and support systems.”
Carvalho says IHS checks up on the returnees every three months to verify that they are still living where they were sent and so far has lost touch with only two of them.
Visitor industry funding for the IHS program ends in November. Carvalho says it’s a shame the Legislature failed to approve funding to continue the program and expand it statewide, because IHS gets requests for it from homeless outside of Waikiki for assistance to return to their homes.
River of Life Mission in Chinatown says it also pays for air tickets to send some of its clients home to the mainland but only for compassionate medical reasons or other compelling circumstances.
“It is not something we do every day,” says Merrie-Susan Marchant, River of Life general manager.
Myth No. 3. Homeless have an easier time getting public assistance in Hawaii and the benefits and services they receive here are more plentiful than in other states.
While Hawaii may be more generous in this regard than some states, it’s difficult to pin down. The Department of Human Services, the state agency which administers benefits for homeless, emailed me a series of general responses to my inquiry about the amount of benefits available for homeless and other needy people in Hawaii, and the ease with which homeless individuals can receive them.
DHS spokeswoman Keopu Reelitz says she is unfamiliar with how Hawaii’s state-funded benefits compare with those in the other states.
DHS said that some assistance programs available to homeless in Hawaii like SNAP (food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid, are federally funded and no more plentiful or easier to apply for in Hawaii than in other states.
Reelitz says homeless applying for state-funded benefits such as general assistance (what we commonly call welfare) and Assistance for the Aged, Blind and Disabled, and Temporary Assistance for Other Needy Families must follow state requirements to qualify and that the benefits have time limits.
Government assistance offered by the state and city are not primary drivers in bringing homeless people here from the mainland, says Kimo Carvalho with the Institute of Human Services.
Interestingly, a homeless person arriving here from the mainland can begin the process of applying for welfare benefits and social services the minute he or she steps off a plane. There is no residency requirement.
To receive federal benefits, you must be a U.S. citizen; residency is not an issue. And when it comes to state-funded benefits and services, DHS says an applicant must “simply declare their residency here in Hawaii at the time they apply.” So if you have been on Hawaii soil for half a day, you can say you are a resident.
Even so, Fuji says it is “misleading, really a myth, to think homeless people here are receiving a bountiful cornucopia of benefits.”
Fuji says many of the benefits have time limits, and the money and services don’t go very far when you consider the high cost of living in Hawaii.
Morishige says the state general assistance benefits to needy individuals are much less than people think, about $300 to $400 a month.
Carvalho says the government assistance offered by the state and city are not primary drivers in bringing homeless here from the mainland. He says many of the homeless clients IHS interviews say they came here because of Hawaii’s low unemployment rate.
“They tell us, ‘I came to work. I came to start a new life.’ But they are unaware of the realities,” Carvalho says. “They don’t think of the cash on hand they will need to start a new life, the money that is needed for apartment rental deposits and electricity bills and other payments to relocate. They may not find work right away or they may not find a job at all.”
Myth No. 4. It is so pleasant living here that most of Hawaii’s homeless are chronically homeless and have no intention of getting off the dole to find jobs.
While this may be true for some of Hawaii’s homeless, social service providers say it is false for the majority.
DHS says that only about 20 percent of the statewide homeless population is categorized as chronically homeless, an estimated 1,532 individuals out of a total estimated homeless population of 7,620.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development considers someone chronically homeless if the person has been continuously homeless for a year or more or has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years that add up to a total of 12 months.
DHS says, “Chronic homelessness is complex and cannot be described as a simplistic choice not to work and a desire to live on the streets.” It says the reasons for people remaining jobless and unsheltered are many, including substance abuse, mental illness and physical disabilities.
Marchant, of River of Life Mission, says many of the mission’s homeless clients want to find jobs but their behavior makes it difficult to sustain any kind of employment.
“When a person has been living under a bridge or below a hau bush for years, he starts to lose touch with what is socially acceptable. The person may have forgotten the hygiene and polite and orderly behavior that’s expected by employers. Some of our clients find jobs but they can’t keep them,” says Marchant.
Many of Hawaii’s homeless service providers such as IHS and River of Life offer their clients job-coaching, but often that’s not enough to keep in check the clients’ angry outbursts and other behavioral problems that make employment difficult for them to sustain.
Myth No. 5. Sufficient affordable housing will end homelessness in Hawaii.
Most people who work with Hawaii’s homeless say no matter how many affordable rentals and houses for sale become available, there will always be people who will choose to remain living on the streets.
“Some homeless people will never change,” says Marchant. “They have been homeless for such a long time they have adapted to it and are used to having others provide for them. They can see no other life for themselves.”
Fuji is a fan of housing programs like the state’s Housing First, but he still believes “you cannot force people to move into housing, There will always be a minority who will chose homelessness. All you can hope for is to build relationships with them to help them understand what is making them not want to be housed.”
The Portland Rescue Mission in Oregon expresses this reality succinctly: “Housing can help people who are homeless due to poverty. But many people still struggle to function in a normal life and may return to homelessness.”
Morishige has a different take, saying that making enough housing available is Hawaii’s best hope to end homelessness: “It is a critical part of the solution which we cannot ignore.”
He says homeless people who claim they have no interest in moving off the streets and out of parks might have had a negative experience with social service providers in the past.
A key part of the state’s goal is to have enough outreach workers make contact with homeless individuals to help them recognize and work through whatever issues makes them hesitant to seek shelter.
“At the end of the day everyone has the desire to want to be housed,” says Morishige.