Tina Brunner stepped off an airplane in December and breathed in the Honolulu air, far warmer than what she’d left behind in Ohio.
She had an apartment lined up and planned to help a friend launch a cleaning business, something she had experience in. With her 2-year-old grandson Quintein in tow, Brunner was excited to start a new life.
“It just went terribly wrong,” she said.
Someone else moved into the apartment Brunner had saved up a deposit for. She moved in with her would-be business partner, but the relationship soured so she had to burn through money renting one Airbnb after another.
By New Year’s Eve, Brunner and her grandson had checked into a homeless shelter.
“It was traumatizing,” she said. “It’s not like you can just get in your car or get in public transportation and just ride to the next city or state.”
Two weeks later, Brunner and her grandson sat down in an airplane destined for her mother’s home back in Ohio. This time she breathed a sigh of relief.
Brunner is one of 359 people who the Institute for Human Services, the state’s largest homeless shelter organization, has helped buy one-way plane tickets home through its 3-year-old Airline Relocation Program. The Family Life Center on Maui and Kauai Economic Opportunity launched similar relocation programs for the homeless with grants from the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.
In total, the programs have moved 491 people off Hawaii streets and into airplanes.
Now it’s time for the state to dedicate public funds for more airplane tickets, according to HLTA President and former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann.
He is backing House Bill 2012 that would allow the Hawaii Tourism Authority and HLTA to use transient accommodations tax revenue to fund programs that address homelessness in tourist and resort areas, which could include adding money to existing relocation programs. The bill would require public funds to be matched dollar-for-dollar by the private sector.
The measure originally allocated up to $2 million in tax revenue for the tourism organizations to spend on homelessness, but it has since been amended with the dollar amount left blank for now.
State homeless coordinator Scott Morishige applauded the efforts of IHS and other nonprofits to ensure their relocation programs connect people with stable housing at their final destination and not “just a one-way plane ticket.”
But Morishige said there’s not enough “hard data” to show how effective relocation programs are at ending homelessness and worries a state-funded program would detract from other services.
After all, most of the estimated 7,220 homeless people in Hawaii are local. Morishige said only about 10 percent have lived in Hawaii a year or less.
As Brunner sat in the homeless shelter, she looked around at other homeless people from out of state.
“To know they have an opportunity to eventually go home is good,” she said. “There’s still that hope because the program exists.”
An 18-month investigation by The Guardian analyzed relocation programs in 16 American cities. The investigation found “an almost total lack of long-term follow-up” to determine if those who had been relocated were better off at their final destination.
It’s difficult for outreach workers to track homeless people who are swept from one part of an island to another. Putting an ocean between them can make it impossible for staff at nonprofits to find their clients.
“After you finish whatever period of follow-up, you don’t know if the person is going to become homeless on the other end. You don’t know if they’ll return to Hawaii,” said Morishige.
Jason Honjiyo, who runs the relocation program on Kauai, calls his clients within a few days of arriving at their new location, but he said he’s had trouble when people change their phone numbers.
Maud Cumming of Family Life Center on Maui said her organization is not mandated to follow up with clients, but her staff checks in with them in the first 30 days and sometimes for a few months.
At least one of the 46 people that Family Life Center helped fly to the mainland ended up homeless at their destination, Cumming said.
HB 2012 would require the Hawaii Tourism Authority and HLTA to report to the Legislature on the homeless programs funded with money from the bill.
The added layer of bureaucracy worries IHS spokesman Kimo Carvalho.
“At the end of the day we don’t want government to manage these programs,” he said.
Short-staffed and underfunded, nonprofits that offer homeless outreach often lack the bandwidth to audit the programs they run.
“And to have to educate every new administration that comes in. Ugh, what a headache,” Carvalho said.
Then-Director Patricia McManaman explained her concerns about people exploiting the program as “an invitation to come to Hawaii and partake of homeless services here, with an expectation that they will receive a free trip home.”
Similar fears made Cumming of Family Life Center reluctant to accept the HLTA grant to run the relocation program. She didn’t want her organization to bankroll a vagabond’s desire to travel.
“Generally the deciding factor is, is this going to end your homelessness?” Cumming said. “Most of the requests we field, they don’t have anyone on the other end that’s going to receive them.”
The Maui nonprofit has only used $9,000 of the $25,000 grant it was awarded two years ago. For every person admitted to the program, it turns away nine others.
One man asking for a ticket gave the nonprofit’s staff an address he said was his son’s but was actually that of a homeless shelter.
Kauai Economic Opportunity has only used about $3,000 of the $25,000 grant it received eight months ago.
Airfare costs averaged $516 per person at IHS. Only 241 of the 359 people relocated through IHS’ Airline Relocation Program actually received money for airplane tickets. The rest found their own means of funding and IHS helped with the logistics.
Money from HLTA can only be used for airfare, but caseworkers spend hours vetting applicants and preparing people for takeoff. That includes making sure they aren’t leaving outstanding warrants or other legal issues behind.
IHS uses private donations to pay the employee who operates its relocation program. Family Life Center uses money from its state outreach contracts.
The relocation programs on each island almost always require participants to pay for half their airfare.
Hannemann said sharing the cost with participants staves off freeloaders and requires people to have “skin in the game.”
Rep. John Mizuno, who has long championed the idea, says an expanded relocation program could save the state money by freeing up shelter space and resources.
For almost a decade the Kalihi representative said he has operated an informal return-to-home program out of his office, using private donations to help more than 30 people get to the mainland.
Mizuno turned away a homeless man trying to get to Oklahoma when he found out the man’s sister was reluctant to take him in – she agreed to let her brother stay with her, but only for one week. Mizuno worried the man would wind up homeless again.
“If we send people back to Texas or Florida and there’s no connection, we’re just sweeping down a problem to another state and it’s not right for us to do that,” Mizuno said. “We don’t want other states to send their homeless to us without a plan of action.”
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