UPDATED 3/24/2014 12:45 p.m.

If I were a homeless person, my top priorities would be finding food, water and shelter.

But also a place to go to the bathroom.

There is a bill moving through the Hawaii Legislature that has me thinking about the topic. House Bill 33 would make permanent a law set to expire that prohibits urinating and defecating in public in downtown Honolulu.

Two other bills would make it illegal to obstruct sidewalks and lie down at bus stops. All three measures come from state Rep. Karl Rhoads, who says the legislation is in response to complaints from constituents in his district that includes Kalihi, Palama, Iwilei and Chinatown.

“I’m trying to strike a balance,” says Rhoads, who cited several examples to illustrate his concerns — like the woman in a wheelchair who can’t get to the Kmart in Iwilei “because so many people are camped out on the sidewalk.”

But the legislation has upset people like Larry Geller, president of Kokua Council, a nonprofit that advocates for seniors and other vulnerable populations. Geller told the Senate Judiciary and Labor committee Thursday that the three bills “criminalize” being homeless.

Hawaii House of Representatives

State Rep. Karl Rhoads.

The fine for disorderly conduct at a bus stop would be $50. The obstruction penalty would be a petty misdemeanor. Going to the bathroom outside downtown, whether No. 1 or No. 2, can lead to a citation but also arrest.

I’ve been reporting on Hawaii’s homeless problem for over a decade — at Honolulu Weekly, Hawaii Public Radio, Pacific Business News and Civil Beat — and it seems like things are worse than ever. This, despite concerted, coordinated efforts from the City and County, the state, social services agencies and churches, and the help of the federal government.

Some of those efforts work to reach out and help the homeless, and to ease them in to low-income housing. Others restrict where the homeless can congregate, like city parks.

The proposed solutions are many, some reasonable, others extreme.

Do we fly homeless people back to the mainland, if that’s where they came from? Do we set up safe zones so no one will attack them? Do we let people sleep in their cars at night in designated parking lots? Do we penalize people the same way if they beat or kill a homeless person as we would if they victimized others?

Authorities often clear homeless camps only to see them rematerialize later. A friend of my mother from the Pacific Northwest recently stayed in Waikiki and was mortified to find homeless people on Kalakaua Avenue. Such reactions might help explain why Waikiki-Ala Moana representative Tom Brower felt moved to take a sledgehammer to shopping carts used by homeless people to cart their belongings.1

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Laulani Teale testifying at the Capitol.

Rhoads took issue with Geller’s assertion that his legislation criminalizes homelessness.

“All of us have to follow rules,” he said. “I can’t put my rubber slippers outside my door — house rules. And these guys are pitching tents no matter what.”

But all three bills would affect homeless people. The homeless person on the sidewalk to Kmart who obstructed the path of the lady in the wheelchair was probably there because of the building that sits across the street: the Institute for Human Services, a nonprofit group that feeds and gives shelter to many homeless people.

The bills could have an impact on protesters, too. (Legislation from the City and County has in part been in reaction to the occupying of Thomas Square.)

Laulani Teale, coordinator of the Hoopae Pono Peace Project, said, if House Bill 1660 were enacted, “a protester standing on a sidewalk less than one meter in width (or a sidewalk that is only slightly more than one meter in width) could be cited for blocking the path. This would be a violation of the protester’s right to free speech.”

The ACLU of Hawaii has raised that concern and others.

On HB 33, for example, the group’s legal director, Lois Perrin, testified that “criminalization of basic human functions in the absence of options for shelter violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, the ACLU of Hawaii cautions that discriminatory enforcement of any such law could give rise to an Equal Protection challenge.”

But then there are arguments like this one to consider, from Lynne Matusow, secretary of the Downtown Neighborhood Board:

Recently I observed a man, lying down on a bus stop bench, with urine flowing from him onto the street, sidewalk, and the bench. That created a mess, and who knows how many
people later sat on the bench prior to it being cleaned. When I boarded the bus I reported it to the driver. Scenes like this hurt the business community the residential
community, and tourists.

All three measures have received lots of written support that come in form letters intended to make it easy for people to submit testimony. The form letter for HB 33 includes this observation: “The stench of shishi and human feces is just overpowering on some streets like River Street.”

Rhoads tells me that area businesses say the first thing they do when they open shop is to clean the urine and feces left on their doorsteps.

State Rep. Marcus Oshiro — like Rhoads, a Democrat — has testified against all three bills. On House Bill 2049, the bus stop bill, he presented hypothetical scenarios that should not warrant a penalty, including this one:

An overzealous partier decides not to drive home after a long night of consumption. She leaves her car in the parking lot and waits for a bus. Feeling woozy, she extends her arm over the bench taking up more than the space allotted for one person to sit.

HB 2409 now heads to Senate Ways and Means. HB 33 and HB 1660, which were amended by Senate Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee, will move to the full Senate for a vote and the bills appear to be on track to return to the House, either for acceptance of the amendments or for negotiations in conference committee.

Rhoads said he hadn’t yet seen how HB 33 and HB 1660 were amended. (The bills’ committee reports were not posted as of Friday afternoon.)

“I support Housing First and housing affordability and mental health programs to get help for these people,” he said. “But at the same time my House constituents need to be able to function.”

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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