Six months ago, Honolulu enacted a controversial ban on the storage of personal belongings on public property.
Since Mayor Peter Carlisle signed Bill 54 into law in December, it’s been enforced dozens of times all around town. Has it been effective? Who’s been the target? How much does all of this cost taxpayers? Answers are now starting to emerge.
Civil Beat interviewed the key Honolulu City Council architect, the city leaders tasked with implementing the ban and the members of the community affected by it. What they shared reveals a mixed bag in terms of results despite the investment of hundreds of city worker-days and between $120,000 and $240,000 in city resources.
“An hour after they do their sweep, the homeless are back, and I don’t know where they get their stuff, but they come back in force with more tents, more shopping carts and more junk,” said Greg Cuadra, chair of the McCully/Moiliili Neighborhood Board. “It’s not quite as bad an eyesore as it was, but it’s still there.”
The McCully/Moiliili area is a popular spot for homeless, and was the site of the city’s first Stored Property Ordinance enforcement effort back on Jan. 9. Cuadra, a realtor and appliance repairman, lives in the area and said some of his neighbors are happy with the “marginal” improvements because now they can walk along King Street, where a large homeless encampment was broken up.
“When the bill was first introduced and all started, I was all for it. The first time they did their sweep, we saw immediate results,” Cuadra said.
He thinks the city isn’t serious about getting people off the streets.
“I would like to see them enforce this law the way I think it was intended to be enforced,” he said. “Just tell them: ‘You can’t come back.’ I just think the enforcement part isn’t going far enough.”
The city’s consistently said the ordinance does not target the homeless, but acknowledges that they’re the most likely to be impacted. Tellingly, Trish Morikawa, the city’s housing coordinator, was chosen to lead the charge on enforcement of the Stored Property Ordinance.
Morikawa said there’s been a concerted effort to coordinate with homeless service providers like Waikiki Health Center at least two weeks before impounding homeless people’s belongings. Also, the Institute for Human Services (IHS) tags along about 80 percent of the time.
“So that way, for us, we at least know that they’re getting a double shot of people trying to do outreach to them, and then if we see somebody in crisis, then we’ll call either one of them and they’ll come and help immediately if we see somebody that really needs help right away,” Morikawa said. “I think (the ordinance) is helping. I don’t think there’s any way it couldn’t help. Because besides us, the outreach is coming with us while we’re putting them in crisis.
“Sometimes people are yelling and screaming, a lot of times it’s mental health issues or drug issues, but the majority of the time the people are telling us thank you,” she said. “It’s hard. It’s sad. But the people are there offering them help and they’re choosing not to take it. … So it’s a little less hard if they’re getting the help right there and they won’t take it.”
IHS Clinical Director Jerry Coffee said his organization has two dedicated outreach workers specifically for enforcement of the city’s Stored Property Ordinance. IHS recently received a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to do outreach in the urban core. Coffee described the timing, to coincide with the city’s new law, as “serendipity.”
“I think that, in my own personal opinion, that if you take their whole lifestyle and the negative consequences to being a homeless individual … my personal opinion is that the cleanups have been a good thing,” he said. The new law has had “a very, very dramatic outcome for those people who we otherwise would not have come in contact with.”
Coffee said 18 or 20 different individuals his team came into contact with during outreach during Stored Property Ordinance enforcement agreed to seek treatment or help or shelter as a direct result.
“Those folks pretty much all across the board were at the end of their rope,” he said. “All those people were just about as busted up as they could be.”
He said the new law created a “disincentive” and created an “inconvenience” for the homeless that in some cases was the final push someone needed to seek help.
“The cleanups in combination with very consistent and very effective outreach, face-to-face … I think a combination of those two things is the answer that you’re looking for,” he said. “At some point they just said, ‘enough already.'”
City Council member Tulsi Gabbard, who introduced the bill that became the Stored Property Ordinance, has come under fire for what some critics have said is insensitivity toward the homeless. She said she’s seen and heard success stories, but tries to clarify that the bill was limited in scope and “was always about safety and making sure that our public rights of way are safe and accessible to use for everyone.”
“I think the issue of homelessness is a very big issue that extends much deeper and far beyond Bill 54,” she told Civil Beat this week. “I know there are still challenges that remain, and I continue to work with the different service providers to make sure the people who need the services the most are actually getting them. That’s an ongoing effort.”
In Cuadra’s neighborhood in Moiliili, homeless encampments create an impediment to public safety and access along the sidewalks. It’s the same in many other areas of Honolulu, but there is one busy street corner downtown where a different group is creating the problem. And this time, it’s a political statement.
Occupy Honolulu protestors have maintained a continuous physical presence at Thomas Square Park since November, keeping tents, signs and other gear at the corner of Ward Avenue and Beretania Street. Morikawa said Thomas Square has seen the most Stored Property Ordinance enforcement “hands down.”
The way the ordinance works, city workers show up one day and catalog and tag every personal item being stored on city property. The crews return the following day and impound any remaining belongings for at least 30 days before throwing them away for good. So every “sweep” or “cleanup” or “raid” is a two-day operation: one day for posting notice, and one day for impoundment.
So far, the city has enforced the ordinance on 14 different occasions, and routinely goes back to spots it cleared earlier to try to keep the problem from sprouting up again. On 11 of those 14 occasions, Thomas Square was one of the stops on the tour. That’s the most of any single location.
The only two individuals arrested in connection with the Stored Property Ordinance — for obstructing government operations — were Occupy Honolulu protestors. Of the 13 people who have retrieved their belongings after impoundment, the majority are Occupy Honolulu protesters. One man has retrieved his stuff three times, including the same rolling lock-box twice.
Is that frustrating?
“Yes,” Morikawa acknowledged. “Because one of our goals was to clean up the larger encampments, and I think the majority of the other places we have been able to clean up the larger encampments. Just not there.”
H. Doug Matsuoka is an Occupy Honolulu protestor who has documented the city’s enforcement efforts on his blog. The protestors have come up with a way to thwart those efforts.
“The ordinance itself requires the material that’s stored, quote-unquote, to be tagged, which subjects it to seizure 24 hours later,” Matsuoka told Civil Beat this week. “What we’ve done, tent-wise, they’ll come in and tag tents, and we’ll swap them out for different tents. And to make that really obvious, they’ve divided it into blue tents and red tents. … By rotating the tents, we are in compliance with the ordinance.”
Thursday marks 21 days without a raid — “a record,” according to Matsuoka. He said it’s not clear if the city’s regrouping or if it’s run out of money or if they’re reacting to pressure.
“It wasn’t meant to be for those that are doing free speech,” Morikawa said. “The Stored Property Ordinance wasn’t meant for that particular situation. So I think, yes, it has worked how it’s supposed to work, but it wasn’t meant for Occupy Honolulu.”
She said complaints from members of the community — and she’s received more about Thomas Square than anywhere else — are not about the political message being spread there but instead about the “eyesore” that the encampment creates and the loss of access for the public.
“Under the present law, we’re doing what we can do,” said Keith Ishida, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing. “In most instances, it’s very effective. And many sidewalks that have previously been occupied by large encampments have been cleared. So the successes are plainly evident throughout the community. It’s just in this one particular situation, a group has worked to basically circumvent the law.”
“We’re doing the best we can. Even though we can’t remove the tents, our crews still go back there and do impoundments. Things like sofas and other things that the group has brought to the sidewalk,” Ishida said. “So although it hasn’t been cleared, I would suggest to you that the crews have actually contributed to keeping it as clear as possible within the confines of the law that we have to follow.”
Asked if the law needs to be strengthened or changed, Morikawa said the city is “looking at things we could possibly do” because there are concerns that one of the protesters could be injured staying so close to a major city roadway.
“We see the dangerousness of it, but you’d probably have to talk to the council members about whether or not they’re going to look at doing a new law,” she said. “We’re definitely thinking about it because we realize that it’s dangerous.”
Gabbard said she’s worked to make sure the administration does not infringe on free speech rights and says she actually agrees with the Occupy movement on some issues like Wall Street reform and ending the war in Afghanistan. Gabbard is running for Congress as a Democrat.
“There has to be a resolution so those people who want to protest long-term can do so safely,” she said.
So what resolution might there be?
“At this point, I don’t plan on introducing any legislation or any amendments or anything that would either amend Bill 54 or do anything further on this,” she said.
In the six months since the ordinance was enacted, the city has received more than 400 complaints from citizens about stored property all over the island. It’s issued at least 740 removal notices — the 24-hour warnings. (It’s hard to get an exact figure because workers in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation have been given their own notice books that look like the pads police officers use to write parking or speeding tickets, and those books were not collected and inventoried specifically for this article.)
In the same time, the city issued at least 160 storage and disposal notices. These are handed to property owners or left posted on signs whenever items are impounded. The impounded items were stored in at least 175 bins, and some belongings like bikes or strollers were kept separately. (For a look at how the city stores the property, read: A Look At How the City’s Storing Homeless Property)
Twenty-five bins remain in city custody in Halawa, and the other 150-plus have been thrown away in the city’s landfill or waste-to-energy facility. No belongings have been auctioned, which was an option for valuable items. As mentioned earlier, 13 people have retrieved items.
In all, the enforcement operations have cost the city at least $120,000 and possibly more than $200,000. Here’s how we arrived at those numbers:
Department of Facility Maintenance (DFM) Director Westley Chun said between 10 and 15 workers from his department are generally needed for one of the “impoundment” days at a cost of between $3,000 and $5,000. About 60 percent of that figure is labor, and the rest comes from the cost of equipment.
In addition to the DFM folks, between eight and 10 workers from the Parks and Recreation Department and between two and four police officers at any one time are part of the enforcement team. The city uses a “skeleton crew” on notice days since no items are being impounded — up to four people apiece from DFM, DPR and HPD.
In all, the total worker-days for a two-day notice-impoundment sweep would be between 25 and 40. Multiplied by around $300 per worker per day in total costs and multiplied again by 14 sweeps yields a range of between $105,000 and $168,000. But because Chun said sometimes the sweeps aren’t complete in time to have his crews make it back to their baseyard by the end of their regular workday, overtime is occasionally accrued. Civil Beat estimated the costs between $125,000 and $250,000; Chun suggested they should be between $120,000 and $240,000.
To be clear: That’s not on top of the city’s existing budget but included in it because the workers are pulled off of their regular duties to assist with the stored property operations. Chun said even $240,000 is a small figure when compared with DFM’s Fiscal Year 2012 operating budget of $63 million.
“We schedule it to minimize impact to our other activities, and we do it in a way to stay within our current budgetary constraints,” he said. He said there’s “no discernable change” to the level of service on the other tasks DFM handles — things like pothole repairs and maintenance of roads, bridges, streams, equipment and city buildings.
But no matter how much money the city spends, the sidewalks will never be completely clear.
As Ishida puts it: “Part of just being a city, a municipality, is things don’t go away.”