Earnest Brown, a 31-year-old homeless veteran, found his way back to the waiting arms of his mother Saturday and the pair are on their way back to their hometown of Katy, Texas.
The Fourth of July reunion at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport was made possible by the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, a nonprofit agency that helps visitors in distress.
Brown’s mother, Alyna Brown-Lewis, said she was so happy in late June when Pali Momi Medical Center called to tell her the hospital was caring for her son, who had been living on the streets of Oahu for about five years. She immediately started making arrangements to pick him up but ran into problems when she discovered he didn’t have TSA-approved identification.
Hawaii’s mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for incoming passengers posed another challenge, as she didn’t have the money to stay for two weeks.
“My heart dropped again when I found out he didn’t have an ID,” Brown-Lewis said. “I prayed. God can do anything but fail, so I knew that he would answer my prayers.”
Enter VASH President and CEO Jessica Lani Rich, who said she was honored to coordinate the reunion for Brown-Lewis. Rich sent a shuttle to pick up the woman’s son and found law enforcement officials to help him navigate airport security without identification.
“Helping to return a homeless veteran to his family on Independence Day is a very worthy cause,” Rich said, tearing up. “No veteran should ever be homeless.”
Brown thanked Rich for helping him reunite with his family but otherwise had few words to say.
The day, however, was a dream come true for Brown-Lewis, who left Honolulu in tears last year after failing to locate her son.
“I looked for him everywhere on Oahu. When I couldn’t find him, I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “I cried the entire first flight to California.”
On Saturday, Brown-Lewis was crying again, but this time she shed tears of joy.
“I plan to get my son the help he needs. He went to Afghanistan on two tours of duty. He came back with PTSD and other problems,” she said. “Within a few years, he was homeless. It’s really unfair how veterans are mistreated — not just my child but others. It’s like people quit caring once they are not in the service.”
The family reunion came as state and city officials on Oahu are bracing for an expected wave of newly homeless people resulting from mass layoffs and furloughs triggered by COVID-19.
While Brown-Lewis paid for their airfares, visitor industry efforts are underway to continue a tourism-funded repatriation program for homeless individuals.
The program, which began in 2014, pays for half of the airfare to send homeless individuals to the mainland, the Federated States of Micronesia and beyond. Those who participate in the program are required to be matched with friends or family members who will assist them with relocating. The remaining airfare costs typically are paid by the individual or their friends or family members.
House Bill 1945, which supported the program, made it out of the House earlier this year but stalled due to the COVID-19 downturn. The bill had called for an appropriation from transient accommodations tax revenues, which would have been augmented with matching visitor industry funds.
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the program will continue to operate for a time on residual funding.
A key funding source, HLTA’s annual Visitor Industry Charity Walk, was canceled in May. However, Hannemann said if the walk is allowed to be held this November it would create additional funding opportunities for the repatriation program.
Since 2014, the repatriation program has subsidized airfares to send more than 744 homeless people from Oahu, Maui and Kauai back to their families. Hawaii island is eligible for the program, but Hannemann said it has not participated.
So far, Hannemann said only 2% of the homeless individuals flown out of Hawaii returned to the islands.
“This program is part of the toolbox to combat homelessness,” he said. “The state wasn’t in favor of it at first, but we’ve proven that it’s effective. I hope that we’ll be able to come up with additional funding.”