A bill to prohibit sitting or lying on Waikiki sidewalks at all times was approved by the Honolulu City Council on a 7-2 vote Wednesday.
Council members also voted in favor of two bills to prohibit urinating and defecating in public. One bill applying just to Waikiki passed unanimously, and a second bill to make the ban island-wide passed 8-1.
Councilman Stanley Chang, who represents Waikiki, said that the measures were important to addressing Oahu’s rising homeless problem, particularly in the state’s major tourist hub.
“The reason we have gone to such extraordinary lengths is because the homeless issue has impacted residents, visitors and the workers of Waikiki in a way that existentially threatens the economy of our community,” Chang said prior to the vote.
Passage of the measures came after nearly three hours of public testimony that pitted representatives of the Waikiki and downtown business communities against advocates for the homeless.
Since the Waikiki measures were proposed by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, there is little doubt that he will now sign at least those two bills into law.
Another bill, proposed by Councilman Ikaika Anderson, that would have extended the sit-lie ban to all of Oahu, was defeated, 4-5.
Councilman Ron Menor said that Bill 45 was seriously flawed and that city attorneys had already advised council members that the measure “raised serious legal concerns.”
“If we pass this bill today, I believe we will be doing a great disservice to the taxpayers of this city who will ultimately have to foot his bill,” Menor said.
A bill proposed by Menor that would extend the ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks to areas zoned for commercial and business island-wide, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., received initial approval later in the day by a 7-1 vote, with one member excused. Bill 48 still must go to the Zoning and Planning Committee for further deliberation before another full City Council vote.
The measures target the island’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.
But critics say that the city’s “disruption” efforts, which have included property sweeps and the issuance of hundreds of citations for things like panhandling, sleeping in parks and public intoxication in effect criminalize homelessness. The latest proposed measures will only exacerbate the shuffling of homeless people from one area of the island to another when there is a shortage of shelter space, say critics.
“Many of the parents are troubled that they are having to explain to their children as they watch half-naked people, people who have cardboard signs that are begging for money.” — Helene “Sam” Shenkus, marketing director for the Royal Hawaiian Center.
On Wednesday, Waikiki hotel and businesses representatives painted a picture of homeless passed out on sidewalks, urinating and defecating in planters and parks and scaring tourists and workers. Hotel managers testified that some tourists have vowed never to come back to Waikiki.
“Many of the visitors would comment to us that they feel that the streets are not safe,” said Helene “Sam” Shenkus, marketing director for the Royal Hawaiian Center. “Many of the parents are troubled that they are having to explain to their children as they watch half-naked people, people who have cardboard signs that are begging for money.”
The Institute for Human Services, a major operator of Oahu homeless shelters, also came out in favor of the bills.
“Most reasonable people would agree that homelessness is not best addressed by allowing homeless people to take up semi-permanent residence on city sidewalks and in other public spaces,” Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS said in written testimony. “That’s a bad approach. Bad for neighborhoods, bad for residents and business in the area. Most of all, it’s ultimately bad for the homeless themselves.”
This summer, the City Council approved more than $47 million in funding to provide long-term housing and support services for the homeless. But it’s taking the Caldwell administration time to create that housing.
In the meantime, the Caldwell administration announced last month more immediate efforts to provide shelter for the street homeless. Ember Shinn, the city’s managing director, said that the city planned to turn much of Pauahi Hale, a low-income city high rise in downtown Chinatown into a partial homeless shelter for a couple dozen people.
The city also hopes to relocate about 100 homeless people to a plot on Sand Island where they can camp in tents until permanent housing is available. The site would be equipped with portable toilets, storage units, security and health and counseling services.
“This is not Housing First. This temporary solution is contrary to everything Housing First stands for.” — Councilman Breene Harimoto, referring to the Sand Island homeless encampment proposal
The Sand Island proposal has attracted particular criticism. The site is in the midst of the heavily industrial area and abuts former ash and solid waste dumps that operated on the island for decades, according to state health department records. This has raised concerns that the soil could harbor high levels of pollutants, such as lead, arsenic and dieldrin.
“I think what these victims need is to know that they are not alone and we are not forgetting them,” said Steve Costa, a pastor, during testimony to the council against the bills.
Costa also referenced the history of Sand Island, which was used as a Japanese interment camp during World Wart II. In the 19th century it was known as Quarantine Island because it quarantined ship passengers believed to carry contagious diseases.
“Out of site, out of mind — that is what we are doing to the homeless by placing them in a location that is reminiscent of the internment camps and reservations,” he said. “This is the 21st century. You would think that we would have learned from our lessons and lived history instead of herding people into places they don’t want to go.”
Council members Breene Harimoto and Kymberly Pine were in the minority in voting against the bills.
Pine said that the measures made her sad.
“People sitting and lying on the street, they don’t even know what they are doing. They lost themselves many years ago,” she said. “These sit-lie bills do not solve the problem of homelessness. It moves the problem of homelessness from a rich community to a poor community and that is no way to solve the problem.”
Harimoto focused particular criticism on the city’s Sand Island proposal. The Caldwell administration has couched it as part of its “Housing First” strategy, part of a larger statewide initiative to move chronic homeless into permanent housing first and then try to stabilize mental health and substance abuse problems through counseling services.
The city hopes to use about $600,000 of funding from its Housing First appropriation to fund the Sand Island site.
Harimoto said that it was not Housing First because it doesn’t provide any permanent housing. The homeless are expected to bring their own tents to the site, which is set up to be temporary.
“This is not Housing First,” he said. “This temporary solution is contrary to everything Housing First stands for.”
He said that the city was essentially providing the homeless with two options: stay on the street and get arrested or move to Sand Island.
Shinn countered that the Sand Island parcel would be part of Housing First because the city plans to provide the homeless with supportive counseling services and assess them for potential permanent housing.
Shinn also questioned reports that the parcel sits next to former dump sites and could pose safety concerns.
“I am aware of the allegation and it is not a proven fact,” she said. “It is not proven that it is unsafe. In any event, once we get the right of entry to the site we we will do due diligence.”
She said that the city was looking to pave over the homeless camp to address soil contamination concerns.
Sand Island “is ideal because it is available to us, it will probably have the least amount of community resistance to its use and we can bring in all of the services and facilities to operate it,” she said.
“I think the concerns raised are very heartfelt and very legitimate,” said Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who represents Chinatown, also a homeless hot spot. “At the same time, I think when we look at businesses and the business community affected, I think the key issue we have to come back to is the issue of safety.”