Hawaii hopes the "return to home" program will help the state save on the millions it spends each year on food, shelter and other services for the homeless.
July 31, 2013

Hawaii is employing one of the um, more creative ways I've come across to save money on housing, food, and other services earmarked for the homeless. The Aloha State is offering one-way plane tickets to volunteers to ship them back to the mainland. The “return to home” pilot program, which will be run by the Department of Human Services, is a three-year endeavor that will launch this fiscal year. The state legislature has approved spending $100,000 in the first year. The state, which has an estimated 17,000 homeless, expects to save money even if some people return. To be eligible for the program, individuals must have a support system in their home state and must not be able to afford the airfare on their own.


"Patricia McManaman, the department’s director, told lawmakers earlier this year that she had reservations about the cost, the “prescriptive language” of the services to be provided, the need to do background checks and liability related to the requirement to obtain a proper ID to travel.

The department also took exception to the suggestion that homeless people are in need of “sufficient personal hygiene.” McManaman said this was an “unnecessary and inappropriate stereotype” to include in the law.

"The DHS will continue to dialogue with the community around these issues," Kayla Rosenfeld, the department's spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday. "At the end of the day, however, we remain concerned this program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii with a guaranteed return flight home."

Lawmakers were able to push the program through by tying it to an omnibus bill related to housing. Reps. Rida Cabanilla, John Mizuno, Mele Carroll and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, among others, led the effort to get the return-to-home program included.

The bill also includes funding for substance abuse treatment, mental health support and clean and sober housing. And it provides money for a rental assistance program and housing programs for the chronically homeless.

Cabanilla said she simply refused to let the housing bill pass through her committee unless the return-to-home program was included.

“Caring for the homeless has become a cottage industry,” she said.

The agencies that run state welfare programs depend on high enrollment numbers to maintain funding and in turn their jobs, she said, so there’s not much incentive to get people off the public dole."

"It's fractional, it's not for 5,000 homeless people. It's going to be a handful of homeless people that we send home … to their support unit," state Rep. John Mizuno was quoted as saying by Hawaii News Now.

For Cabanilla, the decision to pass the bill came down to simple math. Even if the homeless return after just a few months, she explained, Hawaii will have saved thousands of dollars on food, shelter and medical costs alone.

But it’s not just the money, Cabanilla said she also has faith in the safeguards in the bill to prevent abuse and believes the homeless will do better in a family environment.

The Department of Human Services, which will work on implementing the program, has voiced its concerns, telling Hawaii News Now in a statement:

"We remain concerned this program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii with a guaranteed return flight home."

Mizuno said safeguards will be implemented to prevent such abuse. He also estimated that when the program launches in three to four months, it will hopefully be able to send as many as 100 people back to the mainland each year.

Think Progress reports on one way to improve this type of program, according to Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, "is to have it run not by law enforcement officials, but by homeless advocacy organizations who have their best interests at heart. That may ultimately come to pass in Hawaii; one of the legislation’s principal backers, Rep. John Mizuno (D), said he would support letting a homeless nonprofit administer the program."

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