A new homeless initiative in Hawaii is raising some eyebrows, and the department in charge of implementing it has concerns of its own.
As part of a larger housing bill in July, the state Legislature approved $100,000 per year for a three-year pilot project that would help get some homeless people off the island and back to their families on the mainland. Participants must leave voluntarily.
"This portion of the bill was designed specifically to help individuals and not to tackle the overall problem of homelessness in the state of Hawaii," says Hawaii News Now reporter Chris Tanaka.
In addition to wanting to provide help to the homeless, proponents of the legislation say it will save taxpayers money by cutting down on the services the state has to provide, Tanaka tells NPR's Melissa Block.
But critics tell Tanaka they're worried the program simply shifts the burden and doesn't actually present a long-term solution. The Department of Human Services, charged with coordinating the logistics, fears it will be a costly administrative burden.
One hurdle Tanaka foresees: identification. People living on the street tend to not have any form of ID, so connecting them with their relatives could be a challenge from that standpoint.
In addition, the department told 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."
State Rep. John Mizuno, who helped get the program passed, told Tanaka there would be safeguards in place to prevent abuse. He also acknowledged the program "is not a silver bullet, this does not solve everything."
And Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, tells MSN News:
"These kinds of programs have been used historically to ship homeless people out of town. In the homelessness field it was once called Greyhound therapy. Hawaii now goes a step higher with airplane therapy. Oftentimes, local police departments run such programs offering the stark choices of going to a shelter, jail or hopping on a bus or plane home."
Pinning down exactly how many people the program would affect is tricky, in part because the number of homeless people in the state is ambiguous. But Tanaka notes that the homeless population in the state "hasn't grown substantially over the past few years."
He says the Senate bill references the number of people who used social services in 2011 — about 14,200 across the state.
A 2013 count of homelessness (pdf) found that about 6,300 people were either sheltered or unsheltered.
Then, of course, there's the question of how many people actually have family on the mainland to reunite with. Of those who used homeless services in fiscal year 2012, more than half were either lifelong residents of Hawaii or residents for at least 10 years, according to a state report (pdf); 11 percent who used the services had lived in the state for a year or less.
In 2010, NPR took a look at homelessness in Hawaii, and one shelter noted that one-third of the people who stayed there came from out of state.
Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Sumner Homeless Men's Shelter in Honolulu, told NPR: "We are a tourist destination that attracts people who are homeless or people who have resources, and that's something that we really can't control."
Mizuno told Tanaka he hopes to serve 100 people per year with this pilot program, which Tanaka calls "highly optimistic." It will still be a matter of months before the initiative actually kicks off, given the amount of coordination that's needed.
As Tanaka tells NPR, the program is not intended to be the ultimate solution to the issue of homelessness in the state.
"It is crafted out of benevolence, empathy and the desire to help one person at a time," he says. "There are other sections of the bill with far greater appropriations that would probably be far greater in their effectiveness in dealing with homelessness, namely, clean and sober housing, substance abuse treatment and facilities, rental assistance programs."