Homeward Bound: Hawaii program flies homeless people to the mainland

Three months ago, Chris Lee flew to Hawaii to clear his head after his wife of 20 left him. But instead of escaping, the 62-year-old California resident had his wallet and phone stolen in Waikiki.

He says his pride prevented him from asking his son for help, so Lee stayed at his hotel for as long as he could afford while he figured out how to get home.

But his funds ran out and Lee became homeless, spending many nights on the beach.

“Imagine just walking around like that,” Lee said in an interview outside of St. Augustine Church in Waikiki, pointing to the clothes he was wearing. “It’s not a good feeling, and you don’t know anyone.”

Chris Lee said he came to Hawaii to take a break from his divorce but was stranded after being robbed in Waikiki. A relocation program helped him get home. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Lee is one of the many people who became homeless in Hawaii when relocating from the mainland or visiting. But a program focused on bringing people back to their home state has helped Lee return to his family.

The resettlement program was created in 2015 to address homelessness in Waikiki, where the population is strong, but has expanded to the rest of Oahu, as well as Maui and Kauai. Those who have returned home are a mix of visitors and people who have willingly relocated to start a new life in Hawaii.

The Institute for Human Services, which oversees the resettlement program, has provided $20,000 to kickstart it for the first two years, while private donations continue to fund it, according to executive director Connie Mitchell.

The program has paid half of the airfare to send 599 homeless people from Oahu to the mainland while families pay the rest.

It also offers advice to people before flying back to the mainland.

Jill Wright, director of philanthropy and community relations at the Institute for Human Services, said the program has connected homeless people with families in Micronesia, American Samoa and Guam. It also sent people home to California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri and Montana.

“Wherever they have family, we try to connect them,” Wright said.

But the people the program serves sometimes lose their phones, making it difficult to keep in touch with their families.

Last month, a woman in Utah contacted the program about her father, whom she had been searching for for five years. But her father lost his phone and eventually lost connection.

The resettlement program has helped nearly 600 homeless people since 2015.
The resettlement program has helped nearly 600 homeless people since 2015. Courtesy: Institute for Human Services

In a partnership, Southwest Airlines gave program vouchers earlier this year to pay for airfares in full. However, Wright said that this only applies to certain circumstances, such as: B. for victims of domestic violence or for someone undergoing cancer treatment.

Wright said homeless people are sought through the shelter’s reception system and churches, adding that the program will only help people fly home if they have a robust support system when they arrive.

Other times, Wright said, families called the shelter and asked if their loved ones were there. However, she said it’s hard to track if homeless people go by any other name. Wright added that the shelter is currently home to 45 people from the mainland.

Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said these initiatives have been going on for years, adding that they have had different results in different states. He said for the program to be successful, organizers must ensure those who have been flown home have access to family and social services and conduct annual screenings.

According to Berg, some organizations give homeless people the opportunity to fly to their loved ones or take the train. However, the only way to get out of Hawaii is to fly. People who live in Hawaii, let alone move here, struggle with the high cost of living.

Berg said if the program won’t solve homelessness altogether, it is another way to connect people with resources.

“If done right, with reassurances that the person can live in the new place, a warm handover to service providers, and follow-up to ensure accountability, then they can help those people the most,” Berg said. “However, many people don’t have these resources anywhere else, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

Scott Morishige, Hawaii’s homelessness coordinator, said the program is critical in helping some homeless people return to their families.

“It provides another tool in the toolbox,” Morishige said. “The goal of homeless service providers is to connect people to a stable place, whether it’s a housing unit or a connection to their family.”

A man covered with a tarp rests along Kalakaua Avenue.
According to officials from the Institute for Human Services, some mainland tourists are becoming homeless in Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

The problem with people becoming homeless in Hawaii is complicated. Wright said people’s situations range from visitors who want to start a new life in Hawaii but don’t consider the high cost of living, to people who get robbed during their trip.

Lee, who said he was robbed four times in Waikiki, was connected to the resettlement program through St. Augustine Church, which had provided him with showers and food. Lee said the church helped him connect to the resettlement program.

A few weeks ago, Lee got in touch with his son. Lee cried and said he couldn’t tell his son about his situation because he didn’t want him to worry.

Last Friday, Lee returned to Anaheim, California. Lee said as soon as he got off the plane, he immediately hugged his son.

“It felt like Christmas,” Lee said in a phone interview from Anaheim. “I told him how much I missed him and I didn’t want to hurt him.”

He advises visitors to “deal with their problems at home before coming to Hawaii.”

“I’ve met good people and friends, but I don’t belong here,” he said.

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