Robert White came here about two years ago after living on the streets in Sacramento, Calif. He figured if he was going to be homeless, he might as well live in Hawai'i.
"I wanted to be in an area ... that wasn't too cold or hot," said the 49-year-old yesterday, as he headed to K-Mart in Iwilei from the Institute for Human Services' men's shelter on Sumner Street, where he pays $90 a month for meals and a place to sleep.
For service providers, White and others like him present a perplexing problem: Should people who come here homeless, often with misconceptions of the Islands, be allowed free access to the same services as residents who fall on hard times?
How can providers stop people from abusing the system, while not turning away people who need help? And how can they help them get home if they want to go back?
These touchy questions have become more pressing in recent months, as pro-viders say they're seeing the ranks of newly arrived homeless swell, especially in parks and beaches in the urban core — a situation some are attributing to big cuts in homeless programs nationally and Hawai'i's reputation as a place with robust social services.
"The numbers are growing," said Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS.
Some 22 percent of the approximately 1,400 people who stayed at the IHS men's shelter last fiscal year were nonresidents. That's down from 31 percent in the previous fiscal year — a drop Mitchell attributes not to fewer nonresidents seeking help, but to the shelter's decision to charge shelter residents $90 a month after three months.
Late last year, IHS again amended its policy: Nonresidents are charged $90 regardless, while residents pay the fee after three months.
"We don't want people to think of it as a free hostel," said Mitchell. "It actually has made people think twice."
The discussion comes as the city is trying to clamp down on illegal homeless campers in parks and other public areas. Last month the city banned shopping carts and tents in parks, in some of the toughest measures yet to deter illegal camping.
Providers stress that the newly arrived homeless, most of whom are single men, represent one relatively small part of the homeless population in the Islands and point out that most homeless are still longtime residents who can't afford a place to live.
The most recent Homeless Service Utilization report, from the University of Hawai'i's Center on the Family, showed that about 20 percent of adults staying in homeless shelters in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, and about 14 percent of adults in homeless shelters in fiscal year 2009 had lived in the Islands for a year or less.
By comparison, last fiscal year 44 percent of adults in shelters had lived in Hawai'i all their lives.
Still, providers say those newly arrived Hawai'i residents living in shelters or accessing other services represent a significant drain (to the tune of millions of dollars a year) on an already-overtaxed safety net that has seen big cuts during the recession.
Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikiki Health Center, said Hawai'i has long struggled with what to do with people who come from the Mainland anticipating they'll live in shelters or ending up in them because they don't know what to expect — a high cost of living and a shortage of affordable housing — when they arrive.
But she said the problem has worsened at a time when providers have fewer resources to help people get off the streets. And she added that though the issue has historically been controversial — and muddied by accusations that other states are paying for homeless to come to Hawai'i — it still deserves serious consideration.
"This issue is real. They do end up taking a lot of services," she said, adding that newly arrived homeless are all different, and that not all of them come here looking to bilk service providers or the state. "People come to Hawai'i for all sorts of reasons."
Some come imagining they'll be able to live happily on the beach, she said.
Sometimes, all they know about the Islands is what they see on travel posters.
So far, Hein and other advocates aren't quite sure what could be done to stop homeless from coming to the Islands.
"We've never had an anti- 'Come to Hawai'i' campaign," Hein said.
But she also said it might help to send out the word among providers on the Mainland that Hawai'i is expensive and its nonprofits are struggling to help people already here.
State Rep. Rida Cabanilla, D-42nd (Waipahu, Honouliuli, 'Ewa), chairwoman of the House housing committee, did attempt to address the situation in 2009 with a bill that would have set up a voluntary program to send newly arrived homeless back to whatever state they came from.
The bill died, but Cabanilla hopes to revive it next year.
She said Hawai'i needs countermeasures to deter homeless from coming here.
"Otherwise, we're just going to be a ... homeless paradise," she said.
Just outside the IHS men's shelter yesterday, several people who live there were milling around after eating lunch.
John Falatko, 53, came to Hawai'i about a month ago after his family bought him a one-way ticket here from Illinois, where he was living with them. He said they thought he would be able to get better medical care in Hawai'i. So far, though, he said that hasn't panned out. Shortly after arriving, he said, he was robbed while staying on the beach in Wai'anae.
He has been living at IHS for about a week.
"I thought it'd be easier," he said.
IHS shelter resident Jeff Nicholas, 48, came to Hawai'i six months ago from Las Vegas and has been homeless for two months, after losing his job and his home when a bad fall left him in the hospital for two weeks. Nicholas said he didn't know how expensive Hawai'i would be.
He wants to get back to Las Vegas, but can't afford the one-way fare.
"I guess," Nicholas said, "it is a perfect place to be stuck in."