- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2013

HONOLULU — Anna Pililaau lives on some of the priciest beachfront property in Waikiki, overlooking gold-sand Ala Moana Beach and just across the street from Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.

What’s more, she lives there free of charge. She is one of an estimated 17,000 homeless people who dwell on the islands, rubbing shoulders with tourists and causing no end of angst for local officials trying to scale back the tent cities that dot sites such as Ala Moana Beach Park.

Frustrated by the growing transient population, the Hawaii Legislature took a dramatic step in June, approving the “Return to Home” bill that encourages homeless people to fly back to the mainland by paying for their airline tickets.

According to Ms. Pililaau, 60, the plan was well-received among the wayfaring denizens of Waikiki.

“A lot of the homeless said they would do it,” said Ms. Pililaau, who keeps her belongings in a pair of shopping carts next to a bench. “They came here from the mainland because they thought there were jobs, but they got here and there was nothing.”

Agency balks at program

Whether any Hawaii homeless end up flying back to the Lower 48 remains to be seen. The Hawaii Department of Human Services has opted not to implement the Return to Home program, saying in a statement that the requirements are “costly and administratively burdensome.”

Before placing any homeless person on a plane, the department would be required to help the individual sign a voluntary departure agreement and obtain identification; conduct a background check; provide transportation to the airport; and “ensure proper hygiene.”

“This is not a function that is appropriate for the state of Hawaii to administer,” said Human Services Director Patricia McManaman. “We are not in the business of relocating homeless individuals and families to other states. If an individual wishes to return home, they should reach out to family members or seek support from charitable organizations.”

Executive agencies generally don’t have a choice when it comes to enforcing legislation, but the Return to Home bill says the department “may” coordinate the voluntary homeless relocation program — not “shall.”

Fixing a loophole

“That was our torpedo,” House Vice Speaker John Mizuno told Hawaii Civil Beat. “The word we should’ve used is ‘shall,’ then they couldn’t hide behind an imaginary wall. We’ll go back to the drawing board next year.”

Mr. Mizuno said the measure was designed to address a small but specific portion of the homeless population. He estimated that 100 people per year would take advantage of the pilot program, which launched with an appropriation of $100,000 per year.

Localities have been shuttling homeless people out of town for decades, even centuries. What sets Hawaii’s Return to Home program apart is its candor, said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

“Hawaii’s program is unique in that it became a resolution that went through the state Legislature,” said Mr. Stoops. “In most communities, cities are afraid homeless people will use it as a travel agency and don’t publicize it.”

Hawaiian lawmakers did receive a fair amount of ribbing after the bill was signed June 27 from talk-show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, who said the program could attract vacationers looking for a free one-way ticket back home.

But Hawaii faces homeless challenges unlike those of other states. For one, it isn’t possible for Honolulu police to hustle transients onto the nearest bus out of town, known among homeless advocates as “Greyhound therapy.”

For another, the state’s perennially warm weather, combined with its spacious public parks and beaches, seem ideally suited to those who find themselves between residences.

“It’s never cold here,” said Bradford Rediros, a 56-year-old homeless man staying at Ala Moana Beach Park. “You can sleep on a piece of cardboard.”

The welfare incentive

The Hawaii Department of Human Services alone spent about $14.6 million in fiscal year 2013 on services for the homeless, meaning that each homeless person costs the state thousands — far more than the price of a typical $600 plane ticket to Los Angeles.

A Cato Institute study released last week showed Hawaii leads the nation in welfare benefits. The average Hawaiian would have to earn $60,590 per year pretax in order to exceed the benefit package offered by the state, according to the report, “The Work Versus Welfare Tradeoff: 2013.”

As the state’s homeless sector grows — and complaints grow along with it — lawmakers have made dealing with the issue a top priority. Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie formed the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2011, and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell launched the Housing First strategy in April aimed at keeping people in their home neighborhoods.

That hasn’t been enough to lure 54-year-old Billy Brown out of the park and into a domicile.

“They have housing for the homeless here, but if you drink alcohol, you can’t have housing. And then you have to pay rent,” said Mr. Brown. “I can stay here and I have nothing to pay.”

Even if plane tickets were available, Mr. Brown and Mr. Rediros said, flying to the mainland isn’t an option. Both are Native Hawaiians, they said, born and raised.

“We don’t have nobody there. We’d be lost,” Mr. Brown said. “We’ve lived all our lives here.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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