Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

It’s been nearly a year since officials at the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association (HLTA) made a $100,000 donation to help fund a new, full-time homelessness outreach program in Waikiki, and according to the lodging organization’s president and CEO, Mufi Hannemann, that effort is producing positive results.

“Waikiki, from a visible standpoint, looks a lot better today than it ever has,” Hannemann said. “But we also know the homeless problem hasn’t gone away completely.”

Run by the nonprofit Institute for Human Services (IHS), the year-old Waikiki Outreach Program has served 355 homeless individuals in Waikiki, helping 254 of those people get off the streets and relocating 115 of them outside of Hawaii as part of the initiative’s repatriation program, according to HLTA data.

The work has gone well enough that the lodging association donated another $100,000 last month to the IHS’s homelessness outreach effort in Waikiki, and the HLTA has since expanded funding to Maui, where a similar repatriation program for homeless individuals isolated from mainland family members is now underway.

“Homelessness is a statewide issue; it’s not just confined to Waikiki,” Hannemann said, noting that the growing number of direct flights connecting Maui to the U.S. mainland will be a big help.

“And it’s a 50-50 partnership, where we’ll pay for half of the airfare,” he said. “Then IHS and the Maui Family Life Center will identify a family member on the mainland who will make sure we’re not just sending individuals back there without a safety net being established.”

The HLTA donated $25,000 to the Maui homelessness repatriation effort in October and expects that figure will assist a minimum of 80 individuals with airline tickets and the opportunity to reconnect with family members or friends.

Hannemann, whose organization represents 156 lodging properties statewide, is hopeful that Maui will be just the first step in an effort to provide funding to combat homelessness on all of the state’s neighbor islands, including Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii.

Still, it was just a year ago that then-HLTA President Georg Szigeti, who is now the president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told me homelessness had been on the rise in Waikiki for some time and was “far and away the largest visitor complaint on why they would not come back to Hawaii.”

Today, Hannemann said the HLTA is hearing far fewer complaints from visitors about the homeless population in the state’s most popular travel destination.

“If you walk in Waikiki today, you see that it’s not as visible or blatant as it used to be,” he said. “But we all know anecdotally and otherwise that the homeless problem has not been entirely eliminated there and that work needs to continue.”

Hannemann noted that tourism charity events across Hawaii held over the past two years have raised more than $1 million to fund homeless programs offered by 37 agencies, providing assistance with everything from clothing to food to job training and, of course, housing.

A former Honolulu city mayor, Hannemann was thankful for the range of tourism and private-sector organizations that have pitched in to aid the homeless over the past year, but he continued to emphasize the need for more work.

“If it was easy to deal with, the problem would have been eradicated a long time ago,” he said. “But we can’t give up, and there’s certainly hope on the horizon.”

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