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Airfare for homeless has merit

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Part of hospitality—a part that’s not usually discussed—is knowing where to draw the line. Hosts show no kindness to their guests by pretending they can provide the comforts of home when they simply can’t. The real service would be to help needy people settle where help and support are in place for them.

While mainland transplants represent only a small part of the homeless population, it’s mystifying why two legislators’ proposal to buy airfare to the mainland for qualifying Hawaii homeless should draw a harsh response.

Specifically, officials from Seattle recently expressed disbelief upon learning that state Reps. John Mizuno and Rida Cabanilla favor providing tickets to homeless people with mainland connections who can take them in. Mizuno started a mini-drive seeking airfare to reunite Seattle resident Gregory Reese with his family, including his ailing father.

The community’s role, the critics say, is to help the homeless secure housing and financial solvency, not to foist them off on another community.

They’re right that airfare handouts won’t solve the core problems. But it’s a right-sized project for private nonprofits and others who can help with what, for some, is a very real problem. Already, in the past week, Aiea hairdresser Denise Sakai stepped up to donate the entire $299 plane fare for Reese, who became homeless after job prospects here fell through.

People often come to Hawaii either with expectations that the subtropical climate and the social services safety net will cushion their landing, or with promises of employment. When either or both prove nonexistent, it can be too late to reverse course.

Anyone wanting to relocate faces travel expenses much higher than someone moving within the 48 contiguous states. The cost stands as a barrier between a homeless person and accommodations with family or friends; removing this single hurdle for them would provide a real boost in their efforts to get back on their feet financially.

Mizuno and Cabanilla originally backed a publicly funded pilot program setting aside $100,000 to provide airfare for those who can show that they have connections for housing at their destination. Using tax revenues for this purpose would be a mistake, creating a new entitlement that the state would be hard-pressed to sustain.

It would be better for the private sector—preferably a coalition of nonprofits, churches and community groups tapping private donations—to manage a project like this. The rules should be fairly stringent, giving preference to applicants who not only have a line on housing in a mainland city but prospects for employment as well.

And it should create a database of participants to flag anyone trying to game the system by flying back and forth.

Meanwhile, government can put its focus where it belongs: finding a more comprehensive set of solutions to homelessness. An airfare fund won’t erase problems for the homeless, but something as basic as a one-way ticket to a safe haven may provide exactly what some need to get their bearings again.


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