I have a confession. I steer clear when stepping around homeless people sleeping in public, especially if they smell particularly unwashed. Part of my anxiety stems from the uncomfortable reminder that some people do not have homes, but my suburban upbringing also is a factor; I think parks should be green and quiet and that sidewalks are for lemonade stands and teenagers without drivers licenses.

The recent unanimous passage of the sidewalk nuisance bill is proof that this is a popular view. In the debate over who and what belongs in our public spaces, Bill 7 was a forceful rejection of the (de)Occupy Honolulu and homeless encampments at Thomas Square Park. Mayor Caldwell called the park an “inappropriate place” for the protestors and chided them for using sidewalks as “they’re built for pedestrians, not for camping on.”

The immediate impulse is to say the mayor is right, the sidewalk is a space of flows and anyone moving — dog-walker or morning jogger — has more right to that space than anything stationary, whether living person, pop-up tent, or discarded plaid sofa. This is the logic that undergirds the 2011 Stored Property Ordinance and the recent crack down on illegal bulky item dumping.

But I think before we wave our hands in outrage about how (de)Occupy and a bunch of homeless guys have unfairly appropriated public space, we should reconsider our own assumptions.

Many of our beliefs on public space spring from the assumption that everyone has a private space to retreat to. Even the same activity – sleeping in public – can be perceived quite differently. We’d be surprised if the patrol officer rousted us from our food coma following a picnic in Kapiolani Park – “But officer, I’m not bothering anyone!” — but we’d head back home to continue sleeping off the feast. Someone who was curled up asleep on the edge of Old Stadium Park, however, has no home to go to when the Department of Facility Maintenance rolls up to take her belongings.

NYU law professor Jeremy Waldron considers the rise of sit-lie ordinances and similar municipal laws as not just criminalizing homelessness, but de facto legislating homeless people out of existence.

“Since private places and public places between them exhaust all the places that there are, there is nowhere that these actions may be performed by the homeless person. And since freedom to perform a concrete action requires freedom to perform it at some place, it follows that the homeless person does not have the freedom to perform them. If sleeping is prohibited in public places, then sleeping is comprehensively prohibited to the homeless. If urinating is prohibited in public places (and if there are no public lavatories) then the homeless are simply unfree to urinate. These are not altogether comfortable conclusions, and they are certainly not comfortable for those who have to live with them.”(Footnote needed? Waldron, J. 1991, “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom.” UCLA Law Review 39, 295-324)

Let me think about how his argument plays out locally. No one likes the smell of stale urine, but without public bathrooms accessible 24 hours a day, do we mean that the homeless are unfree to pee? If local shelters don’t allow animals, then are we saying that homeless people are unfree to love their pets? If there’s no space in the family shelter, then are we suggesting that they don’t have the right to stay with their children? If the city can confiscate anything deemed a nuisance or “stored” on public property, are we insisting that homeless people can’t have anything except their bodies and the clothes on their backs?

These public space ordinances (sidewalk nuisance, stored property, etc.) make the assumption that people have private spaces where they can store their things, use the bathroom, spend the day out of public view, etc. These laws are also based on the assumption that we all agree on the intended uses of public space. The sidewalk is a space of circulation. Except when it’s not. Sidewalks are also for newspaper dispensers, lunchwagon patrons, Christmas parade watchers, and tourist trolley stops. The park is for the public. Unless they are homeless.

Honolulu’s most predictable reaction to homelessness and the (de)Occupy campers can be summed up as “but think of the tourists!” In his January 2013 op-ed, the director of the Honolulu Museum of Art called the park a “civic embarrassment” that he didn’t know how to explain to “visiting dignitaries.” We want to hide the homeless, the protestors, the unsightly.

This is clear in reports to Neighborhood Boards that cite the discomfort of seeing people sleeping in doorways of unused buildings or on a median between two streets. By sleeping in those locations, homeless people are not obstructing the flow of traffic. But they are visually obstructing enjoyment of the scenery and deemed eyesores. In Honolulu, tourists have become an interest group of virtual residents through their proxies, the tourism industry and concerned citizens. In contrast, the homeless themselves are often excluded from our definition of city residents; their few advocates are left appealing to our shared humanity.  

When the most vulnerable (e.g. homeless) or the most outspoken (e.g. (de)Occupy Honolulu) are ejected from our definition of the public, how we define democracy is sorely limited. When our belief in what tourists want overrides the very real needs of human beings, how we regulate public space is operating from deeply flawed assumptions.

After the enactment of Honolulu’s Stored Property Ordinance in December 2011, one joker commented online, “I want to file a complaint against all the people on the beaches and beach parks that put up tents and BBQ with their whole family. It’s a public place and they should be more [quiet] and less visible.”

This strikes us as absurd because families are not thought of as “problems” in the way homeless people are. We agree that the smell of grilling kalbi and the shrieks of running children belong in Honolulu parks. Can we also agree the all the publics of Honolulu, homeowner and homeless alike, have a right to our municipal parks and public spaces?

About the author: Annie Koh is in her second year in the Ph.D program in Urban and Regional Planning at UH Manoa. If asked, she says her love of all things Spam brought her to Honolulu after a decade of living and working in the arts and nonprofit sectors in San Francisco and then Seoul. She blogs about participatory urbanism, city planning, and public art at anniekoh.tumblr.com.

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