Homelessness has put Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell in an unenviable bind.
He says it’s important to empathize with and support those who are living on the streets by providing them with stable housing.
At the same time, he understands that as mayor he must respond to community angst over an increasingly visible crisis by clearing out the homeless from parks and sidewalks.
Lately, he’s been pushing for stricter enforcement of city laws, which has led to the arrest of dozens of homeless people and raised questions about where his priorities lie. And on Sunday Caldwell announced it’s time to be even tougher.
In an op-ed in the state’s largest newspaper, the mayor declared a “war on homelessness” and proposed enacting even more rules that will allow the city to use police force against those living on the streets.
“We cannot let the homeless ruin our economy and take over our city,” Caldwell wrote.
He said the new laws he’s pushing — one that prohibits sitting and lying on sidewalks and another related to public urination and defecation — will be focused on Waikiki, which is the state’s biggest economic driver.
But he also made a pitch for more funding to help him eradicate homelessness by putting some of the most difficult people to house into shelters.
“It is pointless to keep shuffling the homeless from one place to another if they don’t have a place to go,” Caldwell wrote. “We can better manage our homeless challenge in a humane and effective way, but it requires everyone’s efforts, and it requires taking action now.”
While his stance receives praise from many, some skeptics believe Caldwell’s latest tactics are cruel and ineffective.
“It’s mean-spirited, at least that’s our view,” said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It’s often tempting to expect the police to drive people away so then we don’t see the problem, but it doesn’t make the problem go away, it just hides it.”
Cities across the country have enacted laws that essentially criminalize homelessness by making it illegal to panhandle, lie down on sidewalks and camp in parks. Honolulu is no different.
In 2009, Jones’ group issued a report in conjunction with the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty that analyzed the criminalization of homelessness across the country.
That report ranked Honolulu the eighth “meanest city” in the U.S. in large part because of laws it has on the books that allow authorities to roust homeless individuals from sidewalks and other public spaces. It also cited proposals by lawmakers to buy one-way tickets to send homeless people to the mainland.
A follow-up to that 2009 report is scheduled to come out this summer, and though Jones didn’t reveal whether Honolulu would remain on the meanest cities list, he said Hawaii is a frequent topic of discussion.
Caldwell has struggled for more than a year to find the proper balance between helping the homeless and cleaning up the streets.
At a town hall meeting in Nanakuli last week, he stressed how important it was to address both issues.
“A lot of people say, ‘I don’t want to see them, move ’em, get ’em out of my life,’” Caldwell said. “But we need to have compassion. These are our neighbors, our friends, our family members, who aren’t as fortunate.”
He admitted it’s a challenging topic, and one that the city needs to do a better job of addressing. But he also made clear he wouldn’t give up.
“I’m not promising we’re going to cure homelessness,” Caldwell told the audience. “I am promising that we will work hard to make a difference, both in terms of making sure our parks and sidewalks and other areas are open and free for everyone (while) at the same time finding housing for those who are less fortunate than us.”
During his inaugural State of the City address in 2013, Caldwell told the community that homelessness would be a top priority of his administration.
He even vowed to spend millions of dollars trying to get people into their own homes based on a “Housing First” model that has seen success in other parts of the country, but has struggled to take hold here.
Caldwell’s tone at the time made it clear that he wanted to follow a different path than his predecessors, who often took a heavy-handed approach to tackling homelessness.
Homelessness is an incredibly complex topic that even local service providers struggle to explain.
During their mayoral terms Mufi Hannemann and Peter Carlisle were denounced by homeless advocates for closing parks and wiping out encampments, thus sending hundreds of people fleeing to other parts of the island.
Caldwell’s Housing First plan has been praised by colleagues in government and by those in the nonprofit sector who have long been providing services to the homeless.
But Caldwell — who did not respond to interview requests for this article — hasn’t been immune from criticism.
The mayor stepped up enforcement of the city’s stored property ordinance, sending work crews out to clean up tons of trash and seize the belongings of those camping out on sidewalks.
He called the practice “compassionate disruption,” and has said it’s a way to force people into shelters so they can get the services they need.
While this maneuver is controversial in its own right, Caldwell has taken it further over the past two months.
The mayor has been working with the Honolulu Police Department on a series of sweeps that so far have netted dozens of homeless people on charges ranging from park rule violations to outstanding warrants.
Those sweeps targeted areas where many of Honolulu’s most visible homeless populations congregate, including downtown and Waikiki.
HPD also conducted sweeps through parts of Kalihi and Pearl City, and officials say more are planned.
Both Caldwell and HPD Police Chief Louis Kealoha told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the sweeps were in response to increased crime perpetrated by and against homeless.
According to HPD, those sweeps resulted in nearly 180 arrests, with about 80 individuals reporting they were homeless.
While many of the arrests were for outstanding warrants, about two dozen each were for drugs, driving under the influence or violating park rules.
Officers also issued 445 citations during the sweep, about half of which were related to traffic violations. Another 57 were issued for breaking park rules, such as being on the property after hours.
Some advocates — even those who generally support Caldwell’s approach to homelessness — say the mayor might have gone too far.
“Shoving them off to another location is this supposedly wonderful solution, but it isn’t,” said Sheila Beckham, CEO of the Waikiki Health Center. “These people are human beings.”
Beckham’s nonprofit provides medical services to the homeless and low-income. The nonprofit also runs a homeless shelter in Kakaako that is currently at capacity.
She shakes her head in disappointment when talking about the city’s tactics to herd the homeless out of public view, even calling some of the actions “appalling.”
But she also understands the difficult position Caldwell faces when trying to tackle homelessness, especially in the face of various political forces trying to sway his decision-making.
“I’m not sure if he is being passionate or caving in,” Beckham said. “He may just be looking at being re-elected, I don’t know. There may be a tremendous amount of pressure to take care of the problem.”
Hawaii’s $14 billion tourism industry, much of it based in Waikiki, has been one of the louder voices when it comes to moving the state’s homeless out of high traffic areas.
There’s been a lot of negative publicity over the rise of homelessness, particularly in Waikiki, and some fear this could result in smaller tourism revenues in the future.
The Star Advertiser has joined in the chorus, lauding HPD’s recent sweeps.
“Given this discordant reality — the sight of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk or defecating in the park fulfills no one’s tropical-island fantasy, least of all the people who are living this way — it was only a matter of time before Honolulu police felt compelled to act,” a May 14 editorial states. “City crews clearing sidewalks in line with the stored-property ordinance were not enough.”
“There’s a lot of people that feel that you need to cut people more slack because they’re homeless, and I question that.” — Connie Mitchell
Caldwell has proposed making hoteliers pay more property taxes to help pay for a solution to homelessness in Waikiki.
Those funds, if approved, would go toward housing vouchers, grants for nonprofits and increased enforcement of the stored property ordinance, sidewalk nuisance laws and park closures.
But Jones warns that a continuation of the homeless sweeps could cause even more PR problems for Honolulu.
He said similar disruption tactics are used throughout the U.S., particularly in cities where tourism is a major player in the economy. But he added the act of corralling the homeless can lead to its own form of bad publicity.
“It becomes the option that cities embrace when they don’t have the resources to solve homelessness,” Jones said. “It’s not effective. It doesn’t solve homelessness. In fact, what it does is it places even more of a hardship on people who are destitute.”
Caldwell has asked the Honolulu City Council for more than $20 million to help combat homelessness and implement his Housing First vision.
City Council Chair Ernie Martin also recently proposed adding an additional $32 million into the budget to move homeless individuals and families off the streets and into shelters.
Homelessness is an incredibly complex topic that even local service providers struggle to explain. Oahu has seen it’s homeless population increase steadily, according to annual field counts. But even with the data it’s hard to find an explanation as to why.
Some say the increase is partially due to an influx of homeless from the mainland. Others attribute the rise to ongoing reverberations from the economy’s collapse. The high cost of living and lack of affordable housing certainly don’t help.
The issue has again become a central theme in public debate. Not only has Caldwell reinvigorated the discussion, but the state Legislature continues to push its own measures.
This past session lawmakers approved $1.5 million in funding for Housing First while extending a ban on urinating and defecating in public places. Legislators also killed a homeless bill of rights that would have protected individuals’ privacy and property under state law.
One lawmaker, Rep. Tom Brower, who represents Waikiki and Kakaako, even made national headlines when he roamed the streets of Honolulu with a sledgehammer busting up shopping carts that were used by the homeless to carry their belongings.
Brower, who himself had proposed safe zones for the homeless, was finally fed up.
Several high profile crimes have drawn more attention to the violence and vulnerability associated with life on the streets.
Two homeless men were beaten to death by teenagers in Honolulu last December. Another, Scott MacMillan, was stabbed while he slept in Kailua. He was the second homeless stabbing victim to die in the windward town in six months.
Institute for Human Services Executive Director Connie Mitchell runs the largest homeless shelter in Hawaii. She said she’s seen assaults, drug deals, stealing and prostitution taking place in plain view, yet little has been done to address it, at least until now. That’s why she said she’s a supporter of the recent crackdown.
“Anything that helps to curb some of the violence is a welcome reprieve and I really support HPD in trying to make that happen,” Mitchell said. “We have to remember these aren’t just responses to homeless people. These are responses to different kinds of people and the behavior of different kinds of people.”
She added that the homeless aren’t entitled to more leniency from law enforcement.
“There’s a lot of people that feel that you need to cut people more slack because they’re homeless, and I question that,” Mitchell said. “What happens to those people who really do not want to accept any help? Do you just allow them to violate community standards? Or do you actually apply the law to the actions that they’ve taken?”
What’s clear is that unease over Hawaii homelessness is at its height and that action is needed.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s homelessness coordinator, Colin Kippen, believes it will take an all-angles approach that combines the resources of the government and the private sector to get as many people housed as possible.
While he’s not totally on board with the idea of arresting the homeless, he understands Caldwell’s desire to discourage people from living on the streets.
Kippen said this approach can sometimes appear to be inconsistent with the overarching goal of getting people sheltered, but added the community at large has a right to use its public spaces.
“He has community members who are constantly saying our sidewalks are impassible, we’re afraid,” Kippen said. “I just think we need to be careful. Just because a person is homeless doesn’t mean they’re dangerous.”
Kippen said the mayor’s “disruption strategy” — even if it is in response to crime — can’t be looked at as a long-term fix. It still has to be paired with an increase in housing and services.
“There is a public safety concern, and I think it’s not an easy issue,” Kippen said. “The only way that we can make this work is for us to look at this issue in its entirety. We have to constantly be looking to the long-term solution to this problem, which is figuring out a way to construct and have people living in affordable, safe housing.”