Rep. John Mizuno wants to create a public-private partnership to help fund the program.

Hawaii is considering offering homeless people one-way tickets to leave the state and never come back. 

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A new bill, House Bill 1366, sponsored by Rep. John Mizuno, is being dubbed the Return-to-Home Pilot Program. The program requires the state Department of Human Services to establish a three- year program to return Hawaii’s out-of-state homeless individuals back to their families in their home state.

With this program, Mizuno aims to send 500 homeless individuals back to their home state per year and reduce homelessness by 2,000 people in four years. The program would be modeled after similar initiatives undertaken by the private sector.

The Statewide Office on Homelessness and Housing Solutions said in 2022 that 5,973 individuals were classified as persons in emergency shelter, persons in transitional shelter and unsheltered persons.

Mizuno recounted one meeting with a homeless man during a recent interview.

Tents and shopping cars located along Iwilei Road near the Institute of Human Services.
A bill that won preliminary approval Wednesday would help relocate homeless people. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Christine Fehn, a legislative aide for Mizuno, opened his office door earlier this month to find a man in his 60s who said he wanted to move to North Carolina and attend his daughter’s wedding. He was looking for help to leave.

Fehn said the man came into the office with ragged clothing, unkempt long hair and had incomprehensible conversations with himself while motioning his hands in the air. 

Mizuno described him as a “forgotten soul.” The man had come to Mizuno’s office looking for help after speaking to a pastor and getting directions. Mizuno’s office tried to get the man home but hasn’t heard from him since the office visit.

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Homeless individuals will qualify for this program if their participation is voluntary and they have been cleared by the court system, ensuring they are not on probation or do not have other unresolved affairs. The individual must also agree to participate in the program only once, signing an agreement with the state that is kept on file with the Department of Human Services. 

On Wednesday, the House Human Services Committee, chaired by Mizuno, added two more elements into the bill to ensure the money will be spent.

A new draft of the bill would require that half of the airfare costs be paid by the homeless individual’s family members, unless they are proven to be indigent. The bill also allows the state to inspect the “homeless individual’s candor” with their caseworkers at DHS to avoid people gaming the system, Mizuno said.

Vice Speaker John Mizuno during floor session at the Capitol.
Rep. John MIzuno wants a private entity to help fund the program. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Second, Mizuno amended the funding to make the bill a “public-private program” – a collaborative effort between the government agency and a private-sector establishment to operate a program.

Mizuno said the budget for this project is expected to be around $50,000. Half of that would come from the state and half from a private organization that would participate in the program.

DHS Director Cathy Betts had concerns over department resources.

“The department does not have the staff, rules, or system infrastructure to provide such services and maintain documentation to track whether an individual previously accessed the return-to-home funds,” Betts said in testimony.

Betts also expressed concern that “implementing a new pilot state program would require a general fund appropriation and may duplicate existing private capabilities that are not subject to State procurement law.”

A private program managed by former mayor Mufi Hannemann, now the president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, for example, has had a similar program in place for nearly a decade.

“We took some charity walk money and gave it to the Institute for Human Services on Oahu, the Maui Family Life Center, and the Kauai Economic Opportunity Inc.,” Hannemann said.

HLTA also provided participants with a grant and sent homeless individuals back to the mainland or the Federated States of Micronesia under the condition that they show a desire for returning home, they have a loved one willing to accept their return, their family members are willing to pay half the price of the airfare, and they must sign paperwork ensuring that they will not return to Hawaii.

From 2014 to 2020, Hannemann said the program had 744 homeless participants and only 16 of them returned to Hawaii.

“That’s less than 2% that came back,” Hannemann said.

Mizuno said, “now that we have the science, data and facts, I think (the Legislature) will accept what we are trying to do as really being beneficial to the homeless.”

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