If you’re a state with the highest rate of homelessness in the country, you’ve got a number of options. You could build more shelters. You could enact new tax credits for the working poor. Maybe provide more counseling and other services.
Or you could take the route lawmakers in Hawaii did: offer homeless residents a one-way ticket out of the state.
State legislators passed funding this year for a new program to offer one-way flights to any of the state’s estimated 17,000 homeless persons. Lawmakers appropriated $100,000 over the next two years for the “return-to-home” program, but that funding could increase if the initiative is viewed as a success.
There are many reasons why homelessness is so pervasive in Hawaii. It’s an expensive state to live in. It’s not easy to leave. There isn’t much affordable housing.
Viewed in the most charitable light, one-way flights allow homeless people who currently live in Hawaii but have a family or better job opportunities on the mainland to be able to move. Viewed more cynically, officials in Hawaii will use this initiative to coerce homeless persons into leaving, freeing the state from any further obligations to help them.
The state Department of Human Services will administer the program, but officials there worry that the program could wind up being abused by those not currently living in Hawaii. “We remain concerned this program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii with a guaranteed return flight home,” said Kayla Rosenfeld, the department’s spokeswoman.
There are just a few eligibility restrictions. In order to get a free one-way ticket, a person must be participating in the program for the first time and swear he or she is doing so voluntarily. The problem is that in many cities that have implemented similar programs, like New York, San Francisco, and Baton Rouge, “voluntary” doesn’t always mean voluntary, particularly when a city’s police department gets involved. When a homeless person has a run-in with the law, they are often presented with a choice: go to jail or “volunteer” for a one-way ticket. In addition, there is little verification that the person using the one-way ticket will have any better opportunity at their destination, because at that point Hawaii has shed its responsibility for providing care and services.
One way to improve this type of program, as Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told ThinkProgress in a June interview, is to have it run not by law enforcement officials, but by homeless advocacy organizations who have their best interests at heart. That may ultimately come to pass in Hawaii; one of the legislation’s principal backers, Rep. John Mizuno (D), said he would support letting a homeless nonprofit administer the program.