MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Hawaii has a new idea for reducing its homeless population and it's a controversial one. The state will buy one-way plane tickets to send homeless people who came from the mainland back, if they volunteer and have people willing to support them.

For more on this idea, I'm joined by reporter Chris Tanaka of Hawaii News Now. He's in Honolulu. Chris, welcome.

CHRIS TANAKA: Thank you for having me, good day.

BLOCK: This is going to be pilot program for three years. There's $100,000 that's been allocated by legislature. What do the supporters say about why they think this is a good idea?

TANAKA: Well, obviously I think there's a great deal of empathy for people wanting to be reunited with their families. And reuniting the homeless with their families on the mainland is something that has been done in Hawaii by 501c3s, but it's never been legislated. So that's the obvious point.

Proponents and authors of the return to home program also say it's a great deal of fiscal conservatism that's going on because with the Social Service programs that are available to the homeless here, we can actually save money, taxpayer money, by sending them back instead of supporting the chronically homeless over the course of months and years.

BLOCK: Well, as I mentioned, it is a controversial idea. Tell me what opponents of the plan are saying about it.

TANAKA: I think the most notable opponent is the entity that's tasked with overseeing the implementation of it. That's the Department of Human Services. They have gone on the record saying it'll be costly and administratively burdensome. They also said in a statement to me, they were concerned that the program is an invitation to purchase a one-way ticket to Hawaii and know that there's a guaranteed return flight home.

BLOCK: And homeless advocates, what do they have to say?

TANAKA: I spoke with a noted social services expert on the island, who obviously, ideologically, was in favor of the idea because of the statistically increased chances of a homeless person gaining employment and getting a home when they have and are surrounded by a support group. But this person also did voice some concerns, namely the logistics involved in identifying the homeless person, identifying the family, avoiding abuse and most importantly was the type of aftercare these individuals will receive once they get back to the mainland.

He wanted to make sure that there's going to be some social services available to the people who participate in this program on the other end of that plane ride.

BLOCK: What are the numbers of homeless estimated in Hawaii? How big a population are we talking about?

TANAKA: It's difficult to say with accuracy. The numbers that I used were based on the numbers that were given in Senate Bill 515, which were based on the amount of people who took advantage of social services in the island. That number was 14,200 across the state who were served in some capacity in 2011.

BLOCK: Has the homeless population been growing in Hawaii? Is the idea that there are more and more people who are coming to Hawaii, specifically, who end up homeless?

TANAKA: It hasn't grown substantially over the past few years and this program, which is the 12th section of an 18-section bill doesn't really aim to tackle the homeless problem. There are other sections of the bill with far greater appropriations that would probably be far greater in their effectiveness in dealing with homelessness, namely clean and sober housing, substance abuse treatment and facilities, rental assistance programs.

This portion of the bill was designed specifically to help individuals and not to tackle the overall problem of homelessness in the state of Hawaii.

BLOCK: That's reporter Chris Tanaka of Hawaii News Now, speaking from Honolulu. Chris, thanks so much.

TANAKA: Thank you.

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