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A proposal that would have penalized people for lying down on public sidewalks is getting a makeover.
Bill 59 met stiff resistance when it was heard by a Honolulu City Council committee last week. So its sponsor pulled it back and promised to introduce a rewritten version.
What started as a measure to help businesses in areas that tend to attract the homeless drew significant opposition from activists who say it is unconstitutional and unfairly targets homeless people.
Carol Fukunaga, who chairs the Council’s Public Safety and Economic Development Committee, says that the language will be changed so that the measure covers only Chinatown, the State Capitol and Waikiki areas. The bill would also only impose restrictions between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.
“The bill was designed to help make it possible for businesses to function,” Fukunaga said. “We primarily get complaints from businesses that people are sleeping or throwing up in their doorways and leaving considerable mess behind. They’re not always able to conduct their business.”
Bill 59 was introduced by Stanley Chang, with the aim of making city sidewalks safer and easily accessible to pedestrians. The bill made it illegal for anyone to “lie down on a public sidewalk, or on a tarp, towel, sheet, blanket, sleeping bag, bedding, chair, bench, tent floor or any other object or material located on a public sidewalk.” A violation carried a $50 fine.
Kathryn Xian is the executive director for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, an organization which supports human trafficking survivors. She’s concerned that the bill disproportionately targets homeless people and runaway youths.
“The juvenile justice system is working to reform and address the rates of incarceration and criminalization of juveniles for non-violent offenses,” she told Civil Beat. “It would be completely interrupted by this. Not only do we have to address the overall system, we would also have this other element that could end up criminalizing them.”
Xian and Chang are both running running for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.
Xian says runaway youths are at high risk for sex trafficking. “We should be helping them and giving them services, not fining them,” she said.
The bill would have required those cited to have evidence from a shelter that said they were turned away that night from accommodation, an extra hassle for homeless people.
“We live in a democracy,” Xian said. “It’s a very unethical and highly backward piece of policy that can potentially set up a very dangerous precedent.”
But Fukunaga insists that the bill was not intended to target the homeless.
“This bill is intending to make it better for businesses who rely on people to come and go from their stores or restaurants,” she said. “The sidewalks are pretty narrow; when you have a lot of individuals lying on the sidewalk or otherwise blocking pedestrian traffic, it impacts people’s businesses.”
Chang, too, defended his bill. In an emailed statement, he said he has received numerous complaints about crowded, unsafe sidewalks. The bill simply addresses their concerns.
“When people are lying on sidewalks and forcing pedestrians to walk into Oahu’s busy roads to avoid hitting those that are blocking the walkway, something needs to be done to maintain public safety,” Chang said. “Individuals that lie on and obstruct sidewalks are also in danger of hurting themselves if struck or trod upon by accident.”1
But others, including the Honolulu Police Department, raised concerns that the bill was unconstitutional, violating
a section of the Hawaii Constitution that allows people to be on the side of a road.
HPD supports the bill’s intent to keep the streets clean, HPD Maj. Janet Crotteau testified, “It appears to criminalize the issue of lying down on the sidewalk which may lead people to conclude that the City is focusing on the homeless. If the bill is seen as focusing on the homeless, then the City will have to deal with many suits alleging constitutionality claims that the bill is violating the rights of the homeless.”
H. Doug Matsuoka is part of the nonprofit Hawaii’s Guerrilla Video Hui, and is known for filming and circulating videos which he says try to document abuse of authority. He’s closely associated with the (de)Occuply Honoloulu movement.
Matsuoka compared Bill 59 to Bill 54, which was introduced by then-Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard in 2011 and allows the city to take away personal property that is left on sidewalks, parks or other public properties. At the time, Gabbard said the intent was to keep the city’s sidewalks safe and accessible for all, not to target the homeless.
Bill 59 exempts freedom of speech as an “expressive activity” and could be used as a defense to any violation.
Recently two protestors in the (de)Occupy Honolulu movement, Catherine “Sugar” Russell and Blade Walsh, were sentenced to 60 days and 45 days in prison, respectively, for not leaving when city crews were citing and removing tents from the sidewalk at Thomas Square.
That’s a different issue from Bill 59. Still, some worry that the passage of the new measure could send more people to jail.
The real purpose of Bill 59, Matsuoka believes, is to keep homeless people out of sight in a state that relies heavily on tourism as an economic generator.
“Politicians want to get homeless off the street by criminalizing them. Not by implementing any measures and without paying any attention to the cause of homelessness, which is financial inequity,” said Matsuoka.