The Hawaiian Islands homeless problem that won’t go away

A mentally imbalanced homeless woman outside a hotel in Waikiki.

The side of the Hawaiian Islands – the homeless side – that the tourism industry doesn’t want you to see. (Photo Credit: chrstphre/Flickr/CC BY)

Aside from the economic importance of military jobs in the Hawaiian Islands, tourism is a vital system. NPR reports that tourists spend an average of $200 per day for hotel, meal and entertainment. But the homeless population of the Hawaiian Islands has room and board, full health coverage and more for only $3 per day in emergency money. Public food lines help feed locals experiencing dire straits, but the vast majority of people waiting for meals aren’t even from the Hawaiian Islands.

Homelessness on the Hawaiian Islands is up

If shelter populations are any indication, the 10 percent increase in population over the past 12 months is telling. Not only that, writes NPR, but 1,300 of those homeless in Hawaii each year come from out of state. Part of the draw for out-of-state immigrants is Hawaii’s 5 cent redemption fee for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Gary Phillips, who was homeless in San Diego for a long period of time, came to Hawaii and makes as much as $40 per day this way. Phillips and many others like him sleep at the $3 shelter and receive three meals, $200 per month in food stamps and free state-funded health care. With state support, they typically don’t even need more money now.

Paradise for vacationers and homeless alike

There’s a tremendous budget deficit in the Hawaiian Islands – $1.2 billion – and the state is currently attempting to bridge the gap with deferred tax refunds and deferred Medicaid. Considering that homeless shelters in the Hawaiian Islands typically take millions of taxpayer dollars to operate, the influx of mainlanders comes at a most inopportune time. Connie Mitchell, executive director of one of the largest homeless shelters on the Hawaiian Islands, told NPR that nearly a third of her shelter’s budget is spent on this type of new arrival. Mitchell and others are concerned that some people may even be taking up the homeless lifestyle simply to enjoy the tropical breezes and free care.

Portrait of the Honolulu homeless

The University of Hawaii’s Center on the Family reports that while 21 percent of the city’s homeless population was Caucasian in 2005, more than 43 percent are Caucasian in 2010. They’re mostly single and middle-aged. Many scrape together plane fare and live on the Hawaiian taxpayer’s dime while working odd jobs for a time. As the Hawaiian authorities start to catch on to the resource dilemma, the Hawaiian Islands homeless people will largely move on. Determining whether someone is living off public funds because of laziness or real misfortune – and dealing with each group appropriately – is a problem Hawaii’s government needs to solve. People who truly need cash should be the focus of aid programs, rather than possible freeloaders exploiting the welfare system.

UPDATE: Apparently Hawaii is trying to fly some of its homeless back to the mainland. And New York has gotten in the act and is flying them BACK to Hawaii.



The price of paradise – and this was in 2008. It’s worse now.

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