Three months ago, Chris Lee flew to Hawaii as a way to clear his mind after his wife of 20 years left him. But instead of a getaway, the 62-year-old California resident was robbed of his wallet and phone in Waikiki.
He says his pride stood in the way of contacting his son for help, so Lee stayed in his hotel for as long as he could afford it while figuring out how to get home.
But his funds ran out, and Lee became homeless, spending many nights on the beach.
“Imagine walking around just like this,” Lee said in an interview outside St. Augustine Church in Waikiki, pointing to the clothes he wore. “It’s not a good feeling, and you don’t know anyone.”
Lee is one of the many people who became homeless in Hawaii while moving or visiting from the mainland. But a program focused on returning people to their home state has helped Lee return to his family.
The relocation program was launched in 2015 to address homelessness in Waikiki, where the population is prominent, but it has expanded to the rest of Oahu as well as Maui and Kauai. Those who returned home are a mixture of visitors and people who willingly moved to start a new life in Hawaii.
The Institute for Human Services, which oversees the relocation program, allocated $20,000 to jumpstart it for the first two years while private donations have continued to fund it, according to executive director Connie Mitchell.
The program has paid for half of the airfare to send 599 homeless people from Oahu to the mainland while families pay for the rest.
It also provides counseling for people before flying them back to the mainland.
Jill Wright, director of philanthropy and community relations at the Institute for Human Services, said the program has reunited homeless people with families in Micronesia, American Samoa and Guam. It also sent people home to California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri and Montana.
“Wherever they have family, we try to help connect them,” Wright said.
But the people the program serves sometimes lose their phone, making it difficult to get in touch with their families.
Last month, a woman in Utah contacted the program about her father, whom she’s spent five years searching for. But her father lost his phone, ultimately losing connection.
In a partnership, Southwest Airlines gave the program vouchers earlier this year to fully pay for the airfares. However, Wright said those are only for certain circumstances such as a victim of domestic violence or somebody undergoing cancer treatment.
Wright said homeless people are sought out through the shelter’s intake system and churches, adding that the program will only aid people to fly back home if they have a stable support system when they get there.
Other times, Wright said the families call the shelter asking if their loved ones were there. However, she said it’s hard to track if homeless individuals go by another name. Wright added that the shelter currently has 45 people from the mainland.
Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said these initiatives have been done for years, adding that they have mixed results in different states. He said in order for the program to succeed, organizers must ensure those flown home have access to family and social services and conduct yearly check-ups.
According to Berg, some organizations give homeless people the option to fly or take the train to their loved ones. However, the only way to get out of Hawaii is to fly. People who live in Hawaii, let alone move here, have struggled with the high cost of living.
Berg said when the program won’t solve homelessness overall, but it’s is another way to connect people with resources.
“When they’re done right, with assurances that the person has a place to live in the new location, a warm handoff to service providers, and follow-up to assure accountability, then they can help those individuals the most,” Berg said. “Many people don’t have those resources somewhere else, though, so it’s not an overall solution.”
Scott Morishige, Hawaii’s coordinator on homelessness, said the program is critical to help some homeless people return to their families.
“It provides another tool in the toolbox,” Morishige said. “The goal of homeless services providers is to connect people to a stable place, whether that’s a housing unit or a connection with their family.”
The problem with people becoming homeless in Hawaii is complicated. Wright said people’s situations range from visitors who want to start a new life in Hawaii but don’t factor in the high cost of living to people who get robbed during their trip.
Lee, who said he was robbed four times in Waikiki, was connected to the relocation program through the St. Augustine Church, which had provided him with showers and food. Lee said the church helped him connect to the relocation program.
A couple weeks ago, Lee connected with his son. Lee cried and said he couldn’t tell his son about his situation because he didn’t want him to worry.
Last Friday, Lee returned home to Anaheim, California. Lee said once he got off the plane, he immediately hugged his son.
“It felt like Christmas,” Lee said in a telephone interview from Anaheim. ” I told him how much I’ve missed him, and I didn’t mean to hurt him.”
He advises visitors to “deal with your problems at home before you come to Hawaii.”
“I met good people and friends, but I don’t belong here,” he said.