As the economy continues to stumble, homelessness has skyrocketed, leaving many states grappling with an expensive and delicate issue -- what to do with the growing population of people finding refuge in shelters, parks and the streets. Hawaii, where a recent census showed that the homeless population on the island of Oahu skyrocketed by 15% in one year, has come up with a creative yet controversial plan to deal with its homeless problem: ship them to another state.
Hawaii's government and many of its residents worry that the homeless encampments dotting its beaches sap precious state resources and scare away tourists -- a source of income that the state desperately relies on. Many support a proposal that the state pay to send some of its homeless population back to where they came from, provided there is someone to take them in. The rationale: Spending $300 for a one-way ticket to the West Coast is far cheaper than the $35,000 per year it costs to provide a homeless person with social services, according to the Associated Press.
"If clear parameters are set -- a verified family member willing to take them in, the homeless person actually wants to leave -- then I think it makes perfect sense," says John Cheever, a teacher at Punahou School who lives in Honolulu.
"The one-way plane fare is far less costly than the cost to support out-of-state residents and straining our social service infrastructure," says Yvette Maskrey, a district manager for Honeywell who lives in Aiea, Hawaii. "Our charitable donations and tax monies should be prioritized and directed to local residents who are in dire need of these services."
The plane-ticket proposal, which is estimated to cost about $100,000, is aimed at the growing non-resident homeless population. It's estimated that 30% of Hawaii's homeless come from out of state. The attraction of Hawaii to those down on their luck is fairly obvious. Besides featuring gorgeous weather, Hawaii has jobs at a time when many other states are suffering. Unemployment in June was 6.3%, the sixth lowest in the U.S., and well below the national rate of 9.5%. But like other states, Hawaii has plenty of fiscal woes. Officials garnered national headlines last year when the state was forced to close public schools to help close a $1 billion budget deficit.
Many of these new arrivals, who come via one-way plane tickets, don't realize that life in paradise can be difficult. Kevin Morrissey came to Hawaii seeking a better life only to wind up homeless."It was always a dream of mine to come to Hawaii so when I lost my job as a bartender in Ft. Lauderdale, I thought I might find something better here," Morrissey told KITV 4 News.
"Once they get here, they are stuck," says Rona Fukumoto of Catholic Charities Hawaii, who believes the plane-ticket program is a good idea but is skeptical that it will attract much interest from homeless people.
Flying the homeless home is the latest twist on an old idea. Some towns used to give the homeless who agree to leave a bus ticket. While the idea has a certain appeal, it is far from a perfect solution. Many of the homeless shipped to a new location just end up being homeless somewhere else, says Sheila Crowley, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
"Years ago, we used to call it 'Greyhound Therapy,'" she says. She believes a better solution is to address the shortage of affordable housing that causes homelessness. A recent study found that housing someone in a shelter is more expensive than providing them with transitional housing or rent.
"Rather than be concerned with the visual impact of our state's homeless problem on the tourism industry, we need to act with compassion," says Melissa Data, a social worker from Kaneohe, Hawaii. "Instead of moving our homeless, regardless of where they came from, we need to provide better support services that address the root problems and end the cycle of homelessness."
Soon after taking office, the Obama administration invested $1.5 billion in the new Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program. Billions more have been spent on other housing programs, which officials say kept millions of people in their homes who might otherwise have wound up on the street. Yet, the effectiveness of some of these programs -- especially those aimed at helping people lower their mortgage payments -- have fallen short of expectations.
Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows a 10% reduction among people experiencing chronic homelessness in 2009, but a rise in the number of families seeking shelter. Many homeless programs in areas such as Chicago, Colorado, and California have either faced or are facing budgetary shortfalls as cash-strapped state and local governments look to balance their books.
Recently, the government release its first ever Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness that promises to "finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years." However, there has yet to be any money attached to those brave words.
"On a single night in January 2009, there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide," the report says. "In 2009, approximately 1,035,000 individuals used sheltered or transitional housing at some time during the year, as did 535,000 people who were there as part of a family."
Given the current moribund state of the economy, being homeless on the sunny beaches of Hawaii doesn't seem so bad.
Marie LaPointe, a homeless woman who moved to Hawaii from Oakland, Calif., put it this way: "I'm not going, because this is my home. I've been in Hawaii for a long time. They can't force you. I'm not going back over there for nothing."
Additional reporting by Janean Chun
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