Did you catch this story on NPR last week? I can't stop thinking about it! And if I ever face being homeless [horrors!], I know I'll head straight for Hawaii!
A tourist in Hawaii spends an average of $200 a day for a hotel room, meals and entertainment. But there's another class of visitors given room and board, full health care benefits and more for just $3 a day. It's not a luxury vacation package — just homeless benefits courtesy of Hawaii's taxpayers.
At the Sumner Homeless Men's Shelter in downtown Honolulu — less than a mile from Honolulu Harbor, where luxury cruise ships are docked — shelter operations assistant Alfred Ho'opi'i tells guests to line up for their lunch.
"The majority of people that I can see here are from the mainland," he says. "You have your locals, but not too many."
The meal is chopped beef steak with vegetables, mashed potatoes, bread, a fresh apple and cake. Ho'opi'i and his volunteers serve from 750 to 900 meals a day at the three shelters operated by the nonprofit Institute for Human Services.
The shelters' resident population has increased 10 percent in the past year, and one-third of all the guests — 1,300 annually — come from out of state.
Gary 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 5-cent redemption program for plastic bottles and aluminum cans.
"I recycle here," he says. "I make money doing that." Some days, over $40, he says.
And he sleeps at the IHS shelter for $3 a day, with three free meals, $200 worth of food stamps and the state's free health care program.
"I went to the dentist today, and I had a tooth pulled," Phillips says. "It cost me nothing."
The shelter's annual operating budget of $2 million is 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.
"We are a tourist destination that attracts people who are homeless or people who have resources, and that's something that we really can't control," Mitchell says. "But I think that if people do want to take up that particular lifestyle, that it shouldn't be at the public's expense."
Meanwhile, Hawaiian taxpayers face a $1.2 billion budget deficit, which is being addressed in part with deferred state tax refunds and deferred Medicaid reimbursements.
Honolulu's homeless demographic — on the streets and in shelters — 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.
"Well, I was kind of homeless in Flagstaff and Prescott [Arizona], and a guy told me that you could go to Hawaii for $150, so I had some savings and bought a ticket," he says.
He chooses to work odd jobs at minimum wage. Soon it will be time to move on.
"Well, I may go to Alaska during the summer," he said. "Also go back to the mainland. I'm originally from Virginia, but I moved out West a while back. So who knows?"
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.
"I think that we really need to begin to look at who's really homeless — not by choice and by misfortune — and who's really homeless by choice, and have a different solution for the two different populations."