HONOLULU (KHON2) — As more tourists started arriving from the mainland post-pandemic, so did more homeless. Always Investigating looked into what’s behind the trend, and what’s being done to help them, or send them home.
An influx of transitory homeless is putting a strain on an already stressed system. KHON2 wanted to know why and how they’re coming here, and how they can best be helped or re-directed.
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For nearly two years it was difficult for people living on the streets elsewhere to just pick up and come to the islands instead.
“During the pandemic, we had rules in place,” said Dr. James Ireland, director of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department. “Where if you didn’t have a place to stay, you weren’t vaccinated, and you didn’t have a place to quarantine, you could be arrested or sent back.”
But once travel quarantine, testing and vaccination rules were lifted, the floodgates opened for all kinds of travelers.
“After that ended up saw the climb (in transient homeless),” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services. “It went from like 27% to 37%.”
That’s one-quarter to more than one-third of those served at Oahu’s main shelter IHS being new arrivals who came to Hawaii homeless.
“I want to say that IHS, because of where we are close to the airport, and because of the services that we have, we tend to have more of the ones that are visitors,” Mitchell said.
Islandwide and even statewide, the proportion isn’t as pronounced,
“Less than 3% of people who receive services in March were people who had been in Hawaii less than a year,” said Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness.
But that’s still more than 100 new or newer-to-Hawaii people homeless in every month so far this year, according to a homeless management information system run by Partners In Care.
People on the front lines see the difference on the streets.
“The ones from the mainland are kind of just plopped down,” said Jolene Chun, an EMT with the city’s CORE unit, which stands for Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement. “They have a whole bunch of medical issues they have a whole bunch of substance abuse history, and they just expect handouts.”
So how can people who can barely afford food and clothing make their way to Hawaii in the first place?
“I would say the vast majority of the folks that come, they have a monthly check that they get and benefits, and the cost of tickets is very minimal,” Mitchell said.
Some have said their family sent them, and once in a while they say a service provider or other agency directed them here.
“One with a history of mental illness said the caseworker put her on a plane with her disability check — a one-way ticket to Hawaii because the weather is better,” Chun said.
“They’re not doing it as a government policy,” Mitchell said about the rare times that an official is facilitating passage. “It’s not like they say, ‘let’s just give them a ticket so they can go,’ but it’s usually somebody who really, I think, is really feeling sorry for that person.”
IHS alerts the state homeless coordinator when that happens, but no systemic pipeline has been identified.
“I’ve been in the field of social work for over 20 years now,” Morishige said, “and I’ve only encountered one situation where I can actually document that another government agency had assisted a person to come to Hawaii who was homeless.”
But a pipeline to go back home had started five years ago, relocating 565 people so far to help them move away from Hawaii.
“When they’re from somewhere else, we immediately ask, is there anything — if the help was available to you — to return from where you came?” Mitchell said, “Would you be willing to entertain that?”
IHS then splits the cost of a one-way ticket back. Sometimes reconnected families foot the bill.
“I think what we want to be careful about is not sending people to a place where they’re just going to continue to be homeless where they’re at,” Morishige said.
Sometimes there’s a bit of work to do to get them return-flight-read, such as dealing with mental health, medical or hygiene concern — and even getting through security.
“Some people don’t have IDs, so we create an ID for them,” Mitchell said. “We have a relationship with TSA, that they understand that we’re returning someone to a jurisdiction from which they came, and they accept the ID. It’s not a state ID, but it’s an IHS ID that we make for them.”
When possible, agencies are trying to discourage people from moving here homeless in the first place.
“The culture is very different here. They really find out the reality of our tight housing market,” Morishige said. “I think there’s a myth that you can just live on the beach here, and that’s not the case. So when you talk to people and you really ground them in reality, then it’s kind of thinking through what options are available for you.”
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We continue to investigate the crisis on the streets and will report back about changes aiming to get people back to safety, stability and even jobs, whether they’re new to Hawaii or longtime residents on hard times.