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Pilot program to return houseless people to the continent advances at the Legislature


A measure that would establish a three-year pilot program at the state Department of Human Services to help houseless individuals fly back to their families on the continental U.S. has progressed in the Legislature.

House Bill 1366 passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee earlier this week.

The nonprofit Institute for Human Services, as well as Kauaʻi Economic Opportunity and Maui Family Life Center, started the program with the help of the Hawaiʻi Lodging and Tourism Association. IHS said it has helped relocate more than 600 people from Oʻahu in the last eight years.

"Of those, the rate of return is very, very low — about 2% of the people we've sent back," said Jill Wright, the director of community relations at IHS.

In the last two years, the nonprofit estimates 10% to 20% of the people they help in their outreach and shelter programs are from out-of-state.

"They often get stuck here in Hawaiʻi after a series of misfortunes," Wright said. "There are many people looking to return to their families and more affordable cities."

Lawmakers and advocates believe expanding a similar program in the state will not only help more people, but also put less of a strain on community resources. IHS estimates it costs between $35,000 and $1 million to support a houseless individual, depending on their needs. Whereas, the cost to return a person to the continental U.S. with family is about $1,000.

"We are connecting people to their support system and their resources on the mainland in a permanent way," said Wright.

However, several community members have brought up concerns about the state establishing its own program.

"There might be unintended consequences if you establish this as a formal state program to potentially incentivize people to come into Hawaiʻi from the mainland, or other places, with the understanding that they may potentially get a return ticket back if things don't work out for them here," said Scott Morishige, the DHS division administrator.

Morishige told senators if the state were to establish this program, there would need to be another coordinator position to handle the administrative duties.

HB 1366 heads to the Senate Ways and Means Committee next.

Casey Harlow is an HPR reporter and occasionally fills in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Contact him at charlow@hawaiipublicradio.org or on Twitter (@CaseyHarlow).
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