Hawaii Offers Homeless One-Way Tickets Out of State

The controversial tactic has been tried -- and vocally criticized -- elsewhere

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UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1960s: Hula girls dancing in front of palm trees, Hawaii.

Hawaii will become the latest place in the U.S. to offer one-way plane tickets to homeless people, according to the Honolulu Civil Beat. Last week, legislators voted to allocate $100,000 to fund a pilot “return to home” program run by the state’s Department of Human Services that will set aside seats on airplanes — and possibly cruise ships — for homeless people seeking a way to return to loved ones in other states.

To qualify for the trial, participants must complete a background check, be mentally sound, and have what the bill calls “sufficient personal hygiene.” The program is voluntary, and homeless individuals can only enroll in it once.

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Supporters say sending homeless people back to their friends and relatives will enable them to get back on their feet in a more supportive environment. It’s also an effort to reduce the number of homeless people in the state, which is estimated at 17,000, the Honolulu Civil Beat reports.

But critics — who include the very people charged with running the Hawaii initiative — argue that the program does not have nearly enough funding to solve the state’s homelessness problem. Others say the offer could be easily abused. “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,” Kayla Rosenfeld, the spokesperson for the state’s Department of Human Services, said in a statement recently. Local pols like Rep. John Mizuno told Hawaii News Now that just sending a “handful” of homeless people home for a little while would still help the state save money on food, shelter, and medical costs.

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New York City, Baton Rouge and San Francisco have all tried similar programs. New York City implemented its version in 2007, flying more than 550 homeless people back to their families in places like Paris, Orlando, and San Juan (the most popular destination), according to a 2009 article in the New York Times. Homeless advocates vehemently opposed the scheme. “What we’re doing is passing the problem of homelessness to another city,” Arnold S. Cohen, CEO of Partnership for the Homeless, told the Times. “We’re taking people from a shelter bed here to the living room couch of another family. Essentially, this family is still homeless.”

More recently, Baton Rouge’s city council approved a plan in June to provide free bus rides to eligible homeless people run by the city’s police department, Think Progress reports. (Its original name was “Clean Sweep,” but to avoid comparing people living on the street to bags of garbage, the program has been renamed “HOPE” for “Homeless Outreach Prevention Efforts,” according to the Advocate.) But local advocates for the homeless have expressed concern that busy officers won’t have time to follow-up with participants and check their progress.

To avoid similar problems in Hawaii, Mizuno has said he would consider shifting control of the “return-to-home” program to non-profits that have experience working with the homeless. Until then, state officials promise to follow-up with participants a month after they move to make sure they’re doing well in their new homes.

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