Homeless, But Enjoying Hawaii On $3 A Day A growing number of white, middle-aged men from the mainland are finding their way to the warmth of Hawaii, where transients can find themselves shelter, meals and free health care for as little as $3 a day -- most of it funded by state taxpayers who face a $1.2 billion budget deficit.
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Homeless, But Enjoying Hawaii On $3 A Day

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Homeless, But Enjoying Hawaii On $3 A Day

Homeless, But Enjoying Hawaii On $3 A Day

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The typical tourist in Hawaii spends $200 a day for a hotel room, meals, entertainment. But there's another class of visitor who receives room and board, plus full health care benefits, and more, for just $3 a day. Not a luxury vacation package - it's homeless benefits courtesy of Hawaii's taxpayers. Wayne Yoshioka of member station KHPR in Honolulu reports.

WAYNE YOSHIOKA: It's lunchtime at the Sumner Homeless Men's Shelter in downtown Honolulu. The shelter is less than a mile away from the Harbor, where luxury cruise ships are docked. Alfred Ho'opi'i is a shelter operations assistant. He tells the guests to line up for their free lunch.

Mr. ALFRED HO'OPI'I (Operations Assistant, Sumner Homeless Men's Shelter): The majority of people that I can see here are from the mainland. Second row, please. You have your locals, but not too many.

YOSHIOKA: Today's meal is chopped beef steak with vegetables, mashed potatoes, bread, a fresh apple, and cake. Ho'opi'i and his volunteers serve 750 to 900 meals a day at three shelters operated by the nonprofit Institute for Human Services. There's been a 10 percent increase in the resident population in the past year, and one-third of all the guests - 1,300 annually - come from out of state.

What's your name?

Mr. GARY PHILLIPS: My name is Gary Phillips.

YOSHIOKA: Phillips purchased a $400 airline ticket to Hawaii three months ago. He was homeless in San Diego for years but is now earning cash from Hawaii's five cent redemption program for plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I recycle here. Some days I make over 30, some days over 40.

YOSHIOKA: And he sleeps at the IHS shelter for $3 a day, has three free meals, $200 worth of food stamps, and the state's free health care.

Mr. PHILLIPS: I went to a dentist today and I had a tooth pulled. And it cost me nothing.

YOSHIOKA: The shelter has an operating budget of $2 million funded largely by state taxpayers. Connie Mitchell is executive director. She says 28 percent of her shelter and food budget is spent on new arrivals from the mainland.

Ms. CONNIE MITCHELL (Executive Director, Sumner Homeless Men's Shelter): We are a tourist destination that attracts people who are homeless or people who have resources, and you know, that's something that we really can't control. But I think that if people do want to take up that particular lifestyle, that it shouldn't be at the public's expense.

YOSHIOKA: Honolulu's homeless demographic - in shelters and on the streets - is changing. The University of Hawaii's Center on the Family estimates the city's homeless street population has shifted from being 21 percent Caucasian in 2005 to more than 43 percent today. Many are single, middle-aged men from the mainland, like former computer programmer Gary Titleman.

Mr. GARY TITLEMAN: Well, I was kind of homeless back in Flagstaff and Prescott, and a guy told me that you could go to Hawaii for 150, so I had a little savings and I went in and bought a ticket.

YOSHIOKA: He chooses to work odd jobs at minimum wage. And soon it'll be time to move on.

Mr. TITLEMAN: Well, I may go to Alaska during the summer. (Unintelligible) go back to the mainland.

YOSHIOKA: Connie Mitchell says the resource drain caused by newly arrived single male transients is getting more acute. She says Hawaiian lawmakers need to develop policies to address this problem.

Ms. MITCHELL: I think that we really need to begin to look at who's really homeless not by choice and by misfortune, and who is really homeless by choice, and have a different solution for the two different populations.

YOSHIOKA: Hawaii taxpayers face a $1.2 billion budget deficit, deferred state tax refunds, and deferred Medicaid reimbursements.

For NPR News, I'm Wayne Yoshioka in Honolulu.

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