Honolulu’s homeless problem is so troublesome that Mayor Peter Carlisle says it’s worse than a rat infestation.

“You don’t want to make analogies that sound inhumane, but when you have, having cleaned up one of the big homeless (camps) on the Waianae Coast, you would have been better off to have a rat infestation,” Carlisle said during an editorial board meeting at Civil Beat headquarters last week.

“There were needles, there were condoms with drugs in them, there was glass everywhere. The cigarette butts are all over the place. It’s not safe to walk on it. Every mattress that you find that you have to dig up, it’s got lice. They’ve got dogs, they’ve got feces. You’ve got all these vile smells,” Carlisle said. “It’s just God-awful.”

The wide-ranging conversation also touched on Carlisle’s gripes about rail foes and the mayor’s dream of building a billion-dollar rainy day fund in the next decade. But when the topic turned to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit to be held here in November, Carlisle said his biggest problem is the homeless.

A longtime prosecutor, Carlisle is frustrated by the legal limitations on enforcement that would move the homeless off the street, or at least out of view.

“We don’t have coercive powers. With vagrancy laws you had that. That was taken from us by the United States Supreme Court,” he said.

Carlisle didn’t specify the case or cases in which the Supreme Court struck down vagrancy laws, but an important one appears to be Papachristou v. Jacksonville (Fla.). In that case, the court determined that ordinances that amounted to blanket prohibitions on essentially being homeless violated due process because it didn’t inform citizens which behaviors were disallowed.

“I believe it was social legislation,” Carlisle said. “I think it was a complete disaster because now people are out there suffering from their mental problems without us having the ability to coerce them into either the treatment that they need or into a zone that isn’t in conflict with everybody else’s rights.”

Carlisle said homelessness is not as pervasive a problem in Asia, in part because the governments there have the power to tell people, “‘OK, you can live this lifestyle but we’re going to tell you where you’re going to live and it’s not going to be here.’ We don’t have that authority.”

Carlisle said he regularly receives letters from mainland visitors who say they’re never coming back to Hawaii because Waikiki “smells like a urinal.”

“These people are all hanging out there, half-naked some of the time. Throwing up all over themselves, peeing all over themselves,” he said.

Asked about Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s short-term plan that involves discouraging civil groups from feeding the homeless in public parks, Carlisle said he thinks it’s a “great idea.”

“If you can keep them from going to places by not feeding them and some of the humanitarian instincts that people have, I think you’re going to be able to corral the problem to a location that gives them the potential of getting the treatment that they need and gives the public access to what is generally public property,” Carlisle said.

Those who are temporarily out of the work force are generally more willing to seek assistance, but Carlisle said there’s ample shelter space that goes unused. He described the chronically homeless as falling into one of three main groups: drug addicts; mentally ill persons; and people who see homelessness as their preferred lifestyle.

“There are some people who are breeding the next generation of homeless people because this is the lifestyle that they thrive on and they’re teaching their kids this is the way to live,” Carlisle said.

The mayor spoke of his experience clearing out a former homeless camp area on the Windward side, not far from an elementary school.

“It was just foul and you had to wash for two days before you felt that you’d gotten all the stuff that you’d gotten all over you,” he said. “And yet, I don’t think people see that. You see two or three mattresses on the sidewalk that are getting rained on and people are worried about leachate coming through them while they’re sitting there waiting to get picked up. Can you imagine what the environment in a rainforest is when you have people living like that with all these things that are rotting into the soil? It’s disgusting. I mean that’s the only way to describe it.

“So I think you really need to see that and go to it and feel it and smell it and understand what it does to the environment to have a lot less sympathy for what they’re doing.”

About the Author