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Two measures proposed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell that would ban public urination and defecation in Waikiki, as well as sitting and lying on sidewalks in the tourist district, were deferred indefinitely by the Honolulu City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee on Thursday.
The bills are part of a larger so-called “compassionate disruption” campaign aimed at prodding homeless into shelters. But councilmembers said that the city hasn’t moved fast enough to make housing available to homeless living on the streets and that for now they have nowhere to go.
Caldwell has made reducing homelessness on Oahu a top priority of his administration and the City Council has appropriated more than $47 million this fiscal year for that effort. But it will likely take the city several years to create much of the needed housing.
At first, the bills introduced by the mayor last month seemed to be getting good traction in the City Council. Chair Ernie Martin even fast tracked them, noting that “homelessness has reached a crisis stage in Honolulu.”
Other council members seemed to agree that they were necessary, though they also worried that the Waikiki bills would push the homeless not into shelters, but into their own districts.
To that end, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga introduced a bill that would extend the sidewalk prohibitions to Chinatown. And on Thursday morning, Councilman Ron Menor introduced a measure that would expand the sit-lie ban to areas of downtown Honolulu, McCully-Moiliili, Waipahu, Kalihi and Kailua.
But after four hours of debate, members of the committee decided to sideline all of the bills.
The other part of the equation — creating housing for the “disrupted” homeless to move into — wasn’t ready yet, council members said. They criticized the administration for not having a solid timeline in place for creating the housing.
Councilmembers took particular issue with delays in issuing a bid for 100 housing units and services for homeless who suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse addictions. The city hoped to have some of the units ready in August.
But Pamela Witty-Oakland, director of the Department of Community Services, said that the housing probably wouldn’t be ready until later in the year. A service provider that would oversee the housing and services isn’t expected to be chosen until October.
Currently, the city only has room in its shelters to house about 10 percent of the island’s unsheltered population, which totals about 1,600 people.
The administration is “clearly not ready to roll out the Housing First initiative that they had discussed with the council,” said committee chair Ikaika Anderson, who is also a candidate for Congress this year. “They are also not ready to roll out their assistance to working homeless or homeless families.”
Menor cast the only dissenting votes on deferring the measures.
The action came after testimony from representatives of the Waikiki tourist industry who complained that the streets of Waikiki were exuding a stench of urine and that the homeless, many of whom are mentally ill, were scaring the tourists.
But opponents of the bills, including a homeless couple with an infant, complained that the “compassionate disruption” campaign was inhumane.
“This is no tool,” said Kathryn Xian, executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and a congressional candidate. “What this is is an AK-47 criminalizing innocent, non-violent behavior.”
Tracy Martin, who has been living in a Kakaako park with his wife and 3-year old daughter, gave emotional testimony that brought at least one council member to tears about how degrading the city’s campaign is. It includes enforcing a number of nuisance laws, such as sleeping in parks at night and leaving belongings unattended.
Martin talked about how police had been confiscating school books and clothes of homeless children and critical identification, including his own, that he said was needed to get into shelters or obtain other services.
“My daughter is 3 years old today. If this bill passes are you going to label her a criminal because she sleeps on the sidewalk?” he said.
“We get stares. We are an eye sore. I never planned to hurt anyone’s eyes. I just ask that you guys think about the children.”
Caldwell called the council’s decision to table the bills “very disappointing” at a press conference called after the vote.
He said that it made sense to focus the prohibitions on Waikiki first, where there are up to 100 chronically homeless individuals.
“Those are the folks that are lying on our sidewalks and sitting in places that they should not be. And those are the folks that are urinating and defecating on our beaches, and in our grass and in our parks,” he told reporters. “Our local folks who go down to go surfing or just go for a walk or swim laps or watch the sunset, they are stepping in poop, along with visitors, or tripping over people who are lying in the middle of a sidewalk.”
Caldwell said that there were about 116 beds in nearby shelters that could accommodate the homeless prodded out of Waikiki by the “compassionate disruption” campaign.
But that argument didn’t convince council members.
Councilman Breene Harimoto noted that the administration’s rationale for creating the Housing First initiative was that the chronic homeless, many of whom suffer from mental illness or drug and alcohol addiction, weren’t welcome in shelters.
“Without units online they have nowhere to go,” said Harimoto.
“If we pass these bills effective immediately, with none of our Housing First initiative on line, they will get arrested, they have no money for paying the bail, they will have a criminal record. How is that going to help them?”