LIHUE – John Alapai sleeps outside under a tarp at night with Laurice Alapai.
But they’re not alone.
“I hear people trying to call their mom and find a way home,” Laurice said about the other homeless people who sleep nearby at the Kapahi Park.
“It sucks when it rains,” he added about their situation.
He would go home to Georgia in a minute if he could, but doesn’t have any money.
A bill signed more than a year ago by Gov. Neil Abercrombie would have given the Alapais an option. It’s called the Return to Home program and, had it been implemented, it would have distributed $100,000 over three years to provide free one-way airfare tickets for eligible homeless individuals to return to their families on the Mainland. However, the Department of Human Services — the coordinating department as written in the law — declined to establish and administer the program.
One state representative is calling on the department to enact the program.
Rep. Riba Cabanilla, a Democrat in the House representing Waipahu, Honouliuli, West Loch and Ewa, said the intent of the program was to reduce Hawaii’s increasing homeless problem. It would ensure that individuals who find themselves homeless in the islands are able to reconnect with family and support networks where they would have the opportunity to recover.
Additionally, Cabanilla said it would potentially save Hawaii taxpayers millions in welfare costs.
“This appropriation is much needed to decrease the homeless population in our state, to return these stranded homeless individuals from the Mainland to an environment of their choosing,” she wrote in the release issued Friday, “and most importantly to preserve these funds for our own homeless kamaaina.
DHS officials weren’t reached Monday, but Stephanie Fernandes of Kauai Economic Opportunity, which runs the emergency shelter and group home operations on the island, said the local organization occasionally receives requests from homeless for funds to return to the Mainland — which they can’t oblige.
“We don’t have the resources,” Fernandes said. “Our job is to find them a home.”
But some people on the island say they’d jump at the chance to go home on the state’s dime.
“I thought there would be more resources here,” Alapai said. “I’d take a ticket and return to where my mom and dad and brother and kids live on the East Coast.”
Sheryl Sehorn feels the same way.
She said she barely survives on food stamps and sleeps on the streets of Lihue along with two other people.
“I find a quiet spot. Nobody bothers us. Everybody is really nice. Then we get up at 5,” Sehorn said.
A free plane ticket to the Mainland would be a welcome relief.
“Three quarters of my family lives in Oregon,” Sehorn said. “If I got a chance I’d go to Newport, Oregon, and fish.”
According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 5,000 to 10,000 homeless people were living in Hawaii on any given night in 2013.
Fernandes said over the past three months, she has seen an increase in the number of working families in need of shelter services.
“The maximum at our shelter is 19 and most of the time we’re full,” Fernandes said. “The trend is that people are moving in and want to live here. They want to be part of our community. People wanting to leave are few and far between.”
Cabanilla believes the program created by Act 222 (SLH 2013) has merit.
“Let us implore the governor to release the money and create the program,” Cabanilla said.
Lisa Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.