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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 3, 2010

Some Hawaii homeless abuse state benefits, lawmakers say

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Rep. John Mizuno

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

State Rep. Rida Cabanilla

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As service providers report increases in homelessness, and with no new funding to address the situation, some lawmakers yesterday said the state needs to crack down on people who abuse the system and needs to start asking tough questions, such as whether residents should have preferences for services over new arrivals.

"We care about the homeless and we know the system can be run better," said state Rep. John Mizuno, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, at a legislative briefing on homelessness yesterday. "Something needs to be done."

About 30 providers attended the briefing, something of a preview for some of the proposals to address homelessness likely to come up in the 2011 legislative session.

Lawmakers expressed concerns about newly arrived homeless people from the Mainland and some suggested the Legislature revive a measure that would pay for plane tickets to send homeless people back where they came from. The program would buy tickets only for homeless people who are interested in returning and who have a support system back home.

Legislators also raised the issue of families living in public housing for generations at a time when the waiting list has grown to 10,000 people and said the state might want to consider time limits or cracking down on fraud. (State welfare fraud investigators said public housing fraud doesn't appear to be rampant but, they added, much goes undetected.)

State Rep. Rida Cabanilla, chairwoman of the House Housing Committee, said freeing up space in public housing is vital to addressing homelessness and added that she believes residents in public housing have little incentive to move on.

She said time limits might be the push they need.

"How many times do we have to send them to learn how to balance their checkbooks before we say enough is enough?" Cabanilla said during the briefing. "Maybe you're not motivated enough ... maybe what will motivate them is to go back and have a tent on the coastline."

Providers said they understood the frustrations, and some supported more outreach to encourage public housing residents to move out if they're able to.

But, they added, the issue is far from simple: Many in public housing are disabled or elderly and will probably never be able to afford a rental. Others are earning a decent wage and are willing to move, but still can't afford to rent on the open market.

The state manages some 6,100 federal and state public housing units, for which residents pay 30 percent of their income in rent.

Providers also said that as the Legislature eyes time limits for public housing or tries tough love on the homeless, lawmakers should also concentrate on adding to the affordable housing inventory.

"There's not enough affordable housing," said Holly Holowach, of Weinberg Village Waimanalo, a transitional homeless shelter, adding that it is "unrealistic" to think some low-income households would be able to move out of public housing within a time limit, given the barriers they'd have to overcome.

The discussion comes amid growing concern about the homeless population in the Islands, whose ranks range from families that have suffered layoffs to people struggling with mental illness or substance abuse to those who say they prefer living on the streets to staying in shelters.

Preliminary results of the state's annual homeless point-in-time count, conducted in January and to be released soon, indicate that homelessness rose 10 percent to 15 percent from last year in parts of O'ahu, advocates who oversaw the survey said.

Hawai'i already has one of the nation's highest concentrations of homeless people as a percentage of population . Most of the homeless here are longtime residents, but providers have recently voiced new worries about new arrivals who are homeless, saying some appear to be abusing the system.

The most recent Homeless Service Utilization report, from the University of Hawai'i's Center on the Family, found that about 14 percent of adults in homeless shelters in fiscal year 2009 had lived in the Islands for a year or less.

Sylvia Yuen, the center's director, estimated yesterday that if children are added to the mix, the percentage of homeless who have been in the state for a year or less is about 25 percent to 30 percent. The new arrivals come largely from the Mainland and Micronesia.

Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs a men's shelter on Sumner Street, said it's not just shelters seeing newly- arrived homeless. They're putting stresses on the prison system, she said, and are accessing medical care and food stamps.

About one-fourth of those who seek help at the IHS men's shelter are new arrivals. To deter abuse, IHS charges new arrivals from out of state $90 a month to stay at the shelter. Local residents have to pay the fee only after staying at the shelter for three months.