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

The most expensive one-way tickets

A fire has been lit beneath Hawai'i lawmakers on the issue of the mounting homelessness problem, and it became clear at a public briefing yesterday just what had struck the match: reports that migrants fresh off the plane are here looking for free services.

The briefing dealt with other aspects of the homeless problem. They include the subsidized housing fraud that ties up public housing and forces deserving families into homelessness, as well as the struggle to help the chronically homeless those with drug addictions or mental illness more effectively.

But what people found most compelling at the Capitol briefing were the estimates of how big a share of shelter and outreach services goes to people newly arrived in the Islands.

Social service providers, bolstered by data compiled by the University of Hawai'i Center on the Family, estimated that about 30 percent of those seeking shelter or outreach have been in Hawai'i less than a year.

Some come here from the Mainland. Others are migrants from Micronesia under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), a federal agreement giving them legal entry into the U.S. That pact, dating back decades, was forged to help people displaced by nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s.

The Mainland visitors began drawing attention during the colder months, as the recession pushed some to buy a one-way airline ticket and take their chances on a warm beach.

Both they and the COFA migrants have the legal right to be here, but the state government needs to explore ways to lessen the burden they place on social services.

Some providers, including the Institute for Human Services, hand a modest rental bill to people who fly in to Hawai'i expressly for shelter. More should follow their lead: Word needs to get back that Hawai'i isn't a bottomless well of free support.

Meanwhile, legislators should take another look at proposals to provide limited state funding for plane tickets back to the Mainland for those transplants who can reunite with family there.

The Micronesian migrant situation is more complicated. Most are seeking a better life in Hawai'i because there are so few jobs available at home. The Center on the Family provided figures showing that the migrants are trying to support themselves to a greater extent than the other people seeking shelter and homelessness services. Nearly half of them are employed at least part time.

These people shouldn't be rebuffed, but state officials and the congressional delegation should persist in seeking better federal reimbursement for costs of services to COFA migrants. Hawai'i now gets only about $1 for every $10 spent on migrant services.

Hawai'i prides itself on its reputation as a hospitable haven it's even part of our marketable allure. But seeing that something is left for local residents is necessary, as well as absolutely fair.