Homelessness repatriation program works
Legislation calling for matching funds to repatriate the homeless back to the mainland has been introduced by the state House and Senate Tourism Committee chairmen, Rep. Richard Onishi and Sen. Glenn Wakai, respectively.
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Legislation calling for matching funds to repatriate the homeless back to the mainland has been introduced by the state House and Senate Tourism Committee chairmen, Rep. Richard Onishi and Sen. Glenn Wakai, respectively. It would appropriate up to $2 million in transient accommodations tax revenue, to be matched dollar-for-dollar by businesses and other private donors.
The claim by state homeless coordinator Scott Morishige that the repatriated homeless could return to Hawaii is not supported by statistics from the agencies organizing the efforts. Had Morishige requested evidence from us or the social service agencies involved, he would have discovered a number of facts.
Similarly, the Feb. 1 editorial-page item (“Giving homeless [in resort areas] a ticket to fly,” Off the News, Star-Advertiser) was a disappointingly uncritical take on Morishige’s comments.
But, first, a correction on that brief: The repatriation program is not directed by the Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association. Yes, we have supported it with donations from HLTA and, yes, we are mentioned in the legislation. But the work is conducted by the Institute for Human Services on Oahu, Kauai Economic Opportunities Inc. (KEO), and Maui Family Life Center.
As for the proof, IHS reports that since beginning its relocations in December 2014, it has returned 424 people to a place with meaningful ties. Some have not required any funds to be returned because their families paid the travel costs. IHS believes only four or five of them have come back to Hawaii, less than 1 percent of the total.
Kauai Economic Opportunities has assisted 21 individuals with their repatriations. The Maui Family Life Center has helped 46 people. Most importantly, Kauai and Maui report no returnees. The grand total for all three agencies is 491 repatriated.
This high rate of success is due to the diligence of the agencies. They screen the applicants, make contacts with family or friends, confirm the availability of housing at the client’s destination, and then follow up to ensure the person has arrived and is housed. And in the case of KEO, individuals sign a letter that they will not return to Hawaii; if they do, they will refund the full amount expended on their ticket. I am simplifying a rather lengthy and detailed process, but the point is that these agencies are thoroughly vetting their clients. This is not a matter of handing over an airline ticket to any homeless person who asks for one. A key point is that 50 percent of the travel costs is borne by the client’s family or friend, with the agencies paying the remainder.
HLTA and its members alone have donated more than $2 million during the past four years for services for the homeless. That’s why we are behind this legislation because it would greatly increase the pool of available money for these repatriation efforts, as well as other programs that help transition the homeless off the streets and into housing and, ultimately, into the workforce.
Moreover, because the legislation specifically designates tourism areas impacted by homelessness, it provides a nexus between the use of transient accommodations tax revenues and the visitor industry. It’s a point worth making as this source of revenue now generates about $500 million a year, with more than half going to the state’s general fund for regular government expenses instead of for tourism, as was originally intended.
This could prove to be an example of a public-private partnership that helps with one of our most intractable social problems. The state is clearly in need of initiatives that would enhance its efforts to deal with homelessness. This legislation would present an opportunity for the state to join in supporting a repatriation program that has proven to be very successful in reducing our homeless population.
Mufi Hannemann is president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association.