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Hawaii Lawmakers Want to Fly Homeless Back to Mainland

Marco Garcia, File
AP Photo

If lawmakers in Hawaii have their way, homeless people there will get a free ride back home to the mainland. The Hawaii state Legislature has set aside money for free flights.  

With Seattle’s close proximity to the state, the city could become a destination for homeless hoping to get back on their feet. But some say the plan won’t solve any problems.  

With its sunny weather and laid-back lifestyle, Honolulu attracts people from colder climes. Like other cities, the homeless population is growing, but finding a place to sleep might appear to be more pleasant. Many camp out on the beach in Waikiki, and most aren’t locals.  

Jerry Coffee with the Institute for Human Services, an emergency shelter in Honolulu, says there are homeless who have truly compelling situations like mental illness or domestic violence. But there’s another group, too, known as sunbirds.

“The majority of homeless in Waikiki are those individuals who make a conscious decision to spend money on a plane ticket and fly to the state of Hawaii, and they’re quite good at it,” he said. “They’re very often drawing benefits—social security benefits or disability benefits—from their home state.”

Last year, more than 13,000 homeless received social services in Hawaii, but many more aren’t counted. Some legislators there have been working for a few years to implement a return-to-home program as one way to help alleviate the problem.  

In the last legislative session, a bill was passed that includes a three-year pilot program allocating $100,000 each year to pay for one-way plane tickets back to the mainland.  

Hawaii state Rep. Rida Cabanilla says many homeless people want to get back to the mainland to be with their families and will thrive with support.

“It’s only for those who want to go back home and does not have the means to do it. And they have to be registered, bona fide homeless people,” Cabanilla said.  

Opponents in Hawaii worry that the program might attract more homeless to Hawaii. But here in Seattle, John Fox with the Seattle Displacement Coalition, a housing and homeless advocacy group, has other concerns.

“It’s their responsibility, and they’re simply passing the buck. And the fact is, obviously, that it places a greater burden on other communities like Seattle that already have an enormous problem,” Fox said.

The bill may have passed Hawaii’s Legislature, but the controversy keeps brewing. Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, the agency tasked with implementing the return-to-home program issued a statement saying the department won’t be giving out plane tickets because the state is not in the business of relocating the homeless.