Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Planes, Waves and Homeless Feels

Hawaii has the largest homeless population in the United States, showing (PDF) 45 homeless individuals per 10,000 population, higher than any of the other states (though well below Washington DC's 133 per 10,000). Not all of that population, though, is actually their own. Being isolated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean means it's possible for someone from somewhere else to travel to Hawaii, and while they're there, run out of money and have no means to return home, stranding them on the island. Which is surprisingly easy to do given Hawaii's high cost of living. On the mainland, you can still potentially call someone to drive you home. On Hawaii, you're simply trapped. Only 42% of those who received assistance from a Hawaiian shelter or outreach program last year are considered lifetime residents; 11% had been in Hawaii for less than a year.

Which leaves the Hawaiian government with the problem of what to do with them. The answer has largely been, do the same as the others. There's a proposal on the table, though, to make a quicker fix to the issue: pay for a plane ticket to send the out-of-staters home, where they presumably are more likely to have someone to support them, and which would be cheaper than having to devote more money to their care. Bill author Suzanne Chun Oakland is looking for $100,000, which she figures would cover tickets for 100-200 people. So it's never intended to be a cure-all, just an alleviation; in fact, it's just part of a larger piece of legislation.

On its face, sounds reasonable enough. But the proposal is drawing objections from the state Department of Human Services, as well as groups on the ground dealing with the homeless. There are two objections, really. The first objection is in the optics: they'd really rather not tell someone, in essence, to go be poor somewhere else; a plane ticket would only shift the problem rather than solve it and there's no guarantee . It looks very similar to like-minded programs on the mainland which have collectively been derided as 'Greyhound therapy'. The second objection comes from the potential for abuse from out-of-staters who, it's feared, would just buy a one-way ticket in, blow through their cash, and expect the state to pay their way back. Because it IS Hawaii, after all.

The second objection, I get, because some people are awful, though that could be fixed with assorted anti-abuse safeguards. The first objection, though, while understandable given those similar mainland programs, I think really does need to take into account the difficulty of entering or exiting Hawaii. You can hitchhike out of, say, New York if you really had to. You have three ways to leave Hawaii: plane, boat or swim. It's over 2,500 miles from Honolulu to Los Angeles. You are not swimming 2,500 miles. You are not kayaking 2,500 miles. Homeless people do not own Cessnas and Cessnas that aren't actually business jets can't cover that kind of distance anyway. Good luck covering that distance without some sort of formal organization. And money. So this isn't really the same situation as a homeless person on the mainland. It requires a different approach.

The question is, is this it.

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