Editor’s note: Kathryn Xian is a candidate for Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District.

Society’s civility can be judged appropriately by the way it treats the most vulnerable: the economically disadvantaged.

Earlier this year state Rep. John Mizuno introduced a state homeless bill of rights drafted by the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery.

Unfortunately, the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to schedule the measure despite its successful passage in all previous committee hearings.

Homeless count 2014 Honolulu

A homeless man at Ala Moana Beach Park takes part in the 2014 point-in-time count.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

At the same time, several city and state bills were introduced to criminalize extreme poverty, many with the intent to incarcerate the houseless.

Public testimony in opposition of these measures led to their deferral, narrowly avoiding a dangerous policy precedent that would erode our civil rights.

I have heard many people blame houseless persons for their own poverty.

We cannot claim that poverty is the fault of its victims while we make it increasingly difficult for the houseless to alleviate their own poverty: criminalizing the poor who beg for alms, preventing families who cannot afford housing from sleeping in their vehicles and banning those with nowhere else to go from parks and beaches after hours.

These and other laws make it nearly impossible for houseless persons to exist in public spaces and traumatize the houseless by stripping away their right to move freely in the name of “public safety,” a banner that has often been used by governments to justify human rights violations.

Many such efforts begin by limiting the free and safe movement of marginalized classes of people. Thus, extreme poverty is neither a public safety nor a public nuisance issue; it is a matter of civil rights.

Enacting measures that prevent the houseless from escaping poverty is an act of violence. The total houseless population is diverse and includes families with children, survivors of domestic and child abuse, the elderly and people with mental illnesses.

While many would agree that inadequate mental healthcare contributes to poverty, we must also consider that poverty can worsen mental illness and prolong houselessness.

By recognizing poverty as a form of economic violence that exacerbates mental illness and homelessness, we can more effectively approach houselessness as part of our societal responsibility to treat trauma.

Those who have been houseless endure the same types of reactions often directed at survivors of sexual assault: disgust, anger and victim-blaming. Survivors of sexual assault are verbally degraded, slut-shamed, and re-traumatized when forced to face their rapists in court. The houseless are stereotyped as lazy, violent, drug-addicted, and deserving of any misfortune they may encounter.

We employ these tactics to avoid any deep analysis of economic violence and its root cause.

Anti-houseless measures are often justified as cost-efficient and effective uses of taxpayer dollars. However, other U.S. cities that have implemented laws to criminalize poverty have spent millions of dollars and failed to improve their respective issues of houselessness:

San Francisco spent $9.8 million between 2004 and 2008 on over 56,000 “quality of life” citations against the homeless.

In Cleveland, incarceration costs $65 per day, versus $30 daily for shelter.

Minneapolis spent an estimated $2.6 million between 1994 and 2005 issuing citations and incarcerating 33 chronically houseless individuals, with minimal desired results.

Seattle’s “Housing First” program indicated that providing permanent housing for houseless people was 53 percent less expensive than having them live on the street. This marginal cost saving increased over time as program participants became financially stable and independent.

Indianapolis spends $3 to $7 million annually on its population of 500 houseless individuals, which is similar in size to Honolulu’s estimated unsheltered houseless population of 505 in 2013. The Indianapolis study notably linked contact with law enforcement with longer periods of houselessness and higher costs associated with healthcare.

Between 2012 and 2013, the houseless population in Honolulu County increased 4.7 percent, more than any other county in Hawaii. Among Oahu’s houseless, the portion that live unsheltered is growing rapidly, by a margin of 11 percent since 2012 and 23 percent since 2009. The rate of unsheltered families with children also rose 5 percent between 2012 and 2013.

If we do not appropriately address poverty on the city, state, and federal level, we can expect more bleak figures such as these.

The real solution does not lie in creating more unconstitutional laws criminalizing poverty. The solution lies in creating poverty-reduction policies: fully funding the city’s Housing First program, investing in affordable housing, reforming the state’s regressive taxation of low- and moderate-income earners and creating a living wage by linking future state minimum wage adjustments to inflation.

We all have the opportunity and responsibility to support solutions like these by continuing the discussion with our friends and family, holding our leaders accountable to protecting all of our rights, and voting for the progress all of our community members deserve.

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About the Author

  • Kathryn Xian
    Kathryn Xian is a Democratic primary candidate for U.S. Congress in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. She is an award-winning filmmaker and the executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, a service provider for survivors of trafficking. She has helped to pass eight laws relating to human trafficking, including Hawaii’s first labor trafficking law and the nation’s first state statute that made sex tourism into a felony offense.