Five bills that prohibit sitting and lying on sidewalks and public urination and defecation were advanced by a Honolulu City Council committee Thursday over the objections of dozens of people who turned out to testify during a five-hour hearing.
The bills target Oahu’s rising homeless population and are an extension of the city’s “compassionate disruption” campaign, aimed at enforcing nuisance laws to encourage the street homeless population to enter shelters. Critics say that the efforts criminalize homelessness.
“Some say that these bills are cruel, I’m aware of that,” said Councilman Ikaika Anderson, chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee, which heard the bills. “But I believe it’s much more compassionate and preferable to remove them from our sidewalks and provide them with a meal, a bed and (safety).”
A homeless man has a morning bite near Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Cory Lum for Civil Beat
Two of the bills were proposed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and extend the prohibitions to Waikiki only. Two bills proposed by Anderson would implement the bans islandwide. A fifth bill, introduced by Councilman Ron Menor, would extend the sit-lie ban to commercial areas in downtown Honolulu, McCully-Moiliili, Waipahu, Kalihi and Kailua.
Passage of the bills marked a sharp reversal from last month when the committee tabled all of the proposals, citing concerns that the city didn’t have adequate shelter space or housing in place to accommodate homeless people who are getting shuffled around Oahu by the police.
Council members were swayed at the time by emotional testimony from homeless people and advocates who suggested that the “compassionate disruption” campaign was less than compassionate. This included accounts of police officers seizing identification and medicine during sweeps of homeless encampments and reports of people being turned away from shelters because they lacked identification or didn’t have money to pay fees.
Homeless Encampment, Temporary Shelter Planned
But the bills were resuscitated after the council got assurances from the Caldwell administration that it was moving aggressively ahead in creating more housing for homeless. This includes tentative plans to create a temporary homeless encampment on Sand Island equipped with restroom facilities, storage, security and continuous health and counseling services.
The administration also announced plans to turn Hale Pauahi, one of the city’s low-income high-rises in downtown Honolulu, into a homeless shelter.
The Caldwell administration also called for bids this week for 100 housing units and services for chronically homeless. The contract is expected to be awarded in October.
“Our community is demanding different answers to the problem of evolving homelessness.” — Mayor Kirk Caldwell
Assisting in the campaign to assuage the concerns of council members, police officers, city officials and representatives from the Institute for Human Services, which provides shelter and services for homeless, also testified that homeless were being treated humanely.
Jerry Coffee, clinical director for IHS, said that the homeless were not turned away from shelters if they lacked ID. And while IHS does charge fees for its shelters, he said that they were waived for people who can’t afford them.
IHS shelters charge individuals $3 a day or $90 a month and families $4 a day or $120 a month, he said. Homeless people who have resided in Hawaii for less than 30 days are charged $400 a month.
The assurances didn’t appease those who showed up to oppose to the measures, including several homeless people, service providers and religious officials.
As Shinn, Caldwell’s managing director, delivered opening statements in support of the Waikiki sit-lie bill, the reaction of the crowd, which overflowed into the hallway, gave a sense of the opposition to come.
“This bill is not to put people in jail. This bill is part of compassionate disruption,” said Shinn, as the audience erupted in derisive laughter.
Shinn pivoted sharply in her seat, glaring at the rows of filled seats. “Excuse me! Excuse me!” she shot back in an attempt to quell the uproar.
Opponent Promises Lawsuit
Over the next four hours, council members heard heated testimony against the measures, sprinkled with a handful of statements in favor of the measures from Waikiki business associations and residents.
Brian Brazier, a constitutional law attorney, vowed to sue the city if the bills pass.
“I can promise you it’s not whether, it’s not when, it’s not if,” he said of a possible legal challenge. “It’s only when I bring a lawsuit to challenge these bills. I think these laws are morally reprehensible. It criminalizes human existence.”
Often the testimony strayed from the issues at hand — using the bathroom in public and camping out on sidewalks.
“It’s just too easy to say that we will pass this law. Out of sight, out of mind — these are real people.” — Councilman Breene Harimoto
A woman who was formerly homeless testified about poor conditions in IHS shelters, alleging that women reverted to prostitution to pay fees, that the shelters were decrepit with blood and urine-stained grounds and drug use was rampant.
UPDATE: Seena Clowser, the testifier, later said in an email to Civil Beat that she was motivated to testify because she wanted to “explode the myth that shelters are places where one goes to get clean, sober and mentally resolved rather than physically weaker and quite possibly less sober and sane.”
IHS officials were asked to submit written responses to the allegations.
Others testified that the city needed to focus on building affordable housing to solve the homeless problem, not nuisance laws.
Councilman Breene Harimoto was the only council member to object to the measures, saying that they would increase the incarceration of the homeless and do nothing to solve the problem.
“It’s just too easy to say that we will pass this law,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind — these are real people.”
After the hearing, Caldwell said he would consider all of the measures, including those he didn’t propose, if they make it to his desk for signature, despite expressing past reservations about difficulties in enforcing an island-wide ban.
“Our community is demanding different answers to the problem of evolving homelessness,” he said. “It’s a very sad situation. If we can make it apply island-wide, I will look at that.”
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