- Special Projects
I don’t always agree with what my husband Bob Jones writes in his MidWeek columns. I especially disagree with his recent criticism of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s efforts to get the homeless out of Kapiolani Park and off Kalakaua Avenue.
Caldwell is drafting a new bill to prevent people from sitting and lying on the streets in Waikiki.
But first, here is more on his approach to homelessness across the island and, in particular, in Waikiki.
One of Caldwell’s more creative ideas was setting up a lunchtime bistro in one of the public pavilions next to Kuhio Beach.
For a long time, the pavilions by the beach have been hangouts for homeless people who use the public picnic tables as sleeping platforms. Sometimes they commandeer them for gab fests with grungy friends.
Now between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., beach goers can stop by the pavilion closest to the banyan tree where the Waikiki Grass Shack Bistro serves pulled Kalua pork sandwiches, Black Angus burgers and cold drinks.
The homeless are shooed out of the pavilion to make way for paying customers to sit at the picnic tables.
Besides small, clever ideas such as the beach bistro, I admire the mayor’s overall program to deal with the homelessness, which is a one-two punch. The first part aims to make it increasingly uncomfortable for homeless people to commandeer our sidewalks and public park facilities.
Part two is to provide housing and mental and physical health treatment for the homeless.
Caldwell is a lot more pro-active on the homeless problem than his predecessor Mufi Hannemann, who initially shrugged off city involvement by saying homelessness was a state problem.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, the mayor’s spokesman, says advocates for the homeless support Caldwell’s no-nonsense approach to preventing the homeless from getting too comfortable on public sidewalks and in our urban parks.
Van Dyke says homeless care providers say that unless the homeless are made to obey laws against setting up camp in public places and obstructing sidewalks, they are less likely to seek housing and much-needed care for their mental and substance abuse problems.
In the past two weeks, people who are homeless have told me police have been in Kapiolani Park every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. to tell them to pack up their gear.
HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu says officers are going to other parts of Waikiki, not just Kapiolani Park, to address chronic complaints of homeless camping, panhandling and sidewalk obstruction.
Yu says, “We started in mid-May and plan to go until the end of the June. At that time, we’ll decide whether to continue the effort.”
“It sucks,’ said James Trevarthen, one of my homeless acquaintances who was rousted in a recent Waikiki police sweep.
The mayor is working on still another way to make it less comfortable for homeless campers and panhandlers to set up shop on public streets.
Caldwell’s administration is drafting the sit-lie bill I mentioned earlier. This ordinance would ban people from sitting and lying on the sidewalks in Waikiki during business hours.
Since some Waikiki businesses are opened 24 hours a day, the mayor is considering expanding the ban on sidewalk sitting and lying so that it applies 24/7.
The mayor’s office will only talk about the bill in generalities because the draft hasn’t been finished.
But Waikiki Improvement Association President Rick Egged told me more about it. Egged says a sit-lie bill will help reclaim parts of Waikiki currently taken over by homeless sleepers and panhandlers.
Egged says it means panhandlers who now dot Waikiki sidewalks holding cardboard signs saying things like, ‘Give me money for beer,” would still be able to panhandle. But Egged says, ‘they would have to panhandle standing up, not while they sit or lie down on the sidewalks.”
Sometimes I chat with panhandlers I pass on Kalakaua Avenue on my way to my gym in Waikiki. Most of the ones I talk with are able-bodied men who say they are from the mainland. I have found them to be quite lazy. I doubt if they would enjoy standing up all night to panhandle.
I interviewed Mark Marlowe, originally from Salt Lake City, who begs for money while sitting in a blue beach chair on a Kalakaua sidewalk. With the new proposal, police could tell Marlowe to pick up his chair and move on.
A sit and lie law also would give the city another tool to get homeless sleepers off the sidewalks.
On my way to the gym, I pass men and women snoozing on mats on the sidewalk in the middle of the day.
Right now the main tool the city’s Department of Environmental Services uses to get homeless off the streets and out of the parks is the stored property ordinance.
The city’s Department of Facility Maintenance enforces that law to remove property from sidewalks and parks and store it, giving owners 30 days to reclaim their property.
But some homeless, who are wise to the stored property law, now sleep on sidewalks in business districts such as Waikiki and Chinatown with very few personal items.
The sit and lie law would give police a way to ask sidewalk sleepers to pick up their towels and mats and think about moving into shelters.
Sit-lie laws in other mainland cities call for fines but the mayor’s office says Caldwell is thinking of just giving police the authority to make people who are sitting or lying on the street move along, not to issue citations calling for fines.
Imposing fines would probably be pointless since most homeless people claim they are flat broke.
Georgette Deemer, Honolulu deputy managing director, says, “We are told that just having the authority is effective because police can tell the people to move along and they know there is a law to back up the police and they do move.”
Egged, of the Waikiki Improvement Association, says sit-lie bills have withstood constitutional scrutiny in other cities.
Seattle enacted the first sit and lie law in the country in 1994, and it was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Still, sit and lie laws have generated strong criticism from opponents in other cities including San Francisco and Palo Alto. Opponents say sit-lie laws target the poor and merely move homeless from one place to another.
Honolulu City Council member Stanley Chang tried to get a similar ordinance passed last year. But critics suspect Chang’s bill has languished because it prohibited only lying on a sidewalk, not sitting.
The second part of the mayor’s homeless action plan, Housing First, involves moving unsheltered street people into rental housing where they would soon be hooked up with providers to help them with mental and substance abuse problems as well as counseling to address their joblessness.
Council members have criticized the program for focusing on homeless individuals rather than homeless families.
But the Caldwell administration says the number of homeless individuals on the streets is much larger than the number of unsheltered families or couples.
The Housing First plan is costly but it is a way to reach out to some of the most difficult and damaged people in our community.
And the mayor’s office claims that in the end sheltering the chronic homeless will be much less expensive than continually trying to roust them out of parks and off of sidewalks, and imprisoning them or delivering them to hospital emergency rooms.
Still, I remain a bit cynical. I asked the mayor’s housing director, Jun Yang, a question: “What if the homeless refuse to accept the rental apartments the city offers?
“I have yet to find someone to say they are unwilling to move into housing,” he said.
Yang says he routinely walks Honolulu’s streets between 2 and 3 a.m. to talk with the homeless, adding, “It is really difficult to understand what they are going through unless you take the time to speak with them.”