Half a dozen homeless people congregated on the open pavement and planters that line Union Mall in downtown Honolulu on Wednesday afternoon. One man talked to himself as he collected bottles from a trash can. Another rocked back and forth and plugged his ears as if he was trying to drown out a terrible noise.
For now, they and dozens of others who have taken to spending their days in the outdoor malls that dot downtown Honolulu and Chinatown can stay.
The Honolulu City Council postponed a final vote Wednesday on the latest attempt to move the homeless out of tourist and commercial areas. This one would ban sitting and lying on the ground and along planters outside Union Mall, College Walk Mall, Fort Street Mall, Kekaulike Mall and Sun Yat Sen Mall.
Homeless people rest outside Sun Yat Sen Mall, draping their belongings along a makeshift bench.
Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat
The measure is being sent back to the Zoning and Planning Committee in an attempt to ensure it would withstand a legal challenge, said Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who proposed the bill.
The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over some of the city’s malls, has opposed the measure, arguing in testimony that it’s unnecessary because residents and business owners already know how to contact police if homeless people are obstructing entrances to shops or creating unsafe conditions.
The bill, which has been making its way through the City Council since October, would expand for the second time Oahu’s ban on sitting or lying on sidewalks.
In September, Mayor Kirk Caldwell shepherded through a measure that prohibits lounging on Waikiki sidewalks. Concerned that the new law would push the homeless living in Waikiki into their districts, council members passed a bill in November that bans people from sitting or lying in numerous business districts throughout Oahu.
Bill 62, which applies specifically to the five outdoor malls, would exempt people suffering from a medical emergency, people in wheelchairs, infants in strollers, street performers, maintenance workers and people watching a festival, demonstration or other public event, or those lined up at a store or restaurant.
Public benches would also be exempted.
Otherwise, people would not be able to legally “sit or lie on a public mall, or on a tarp, towel, sheet, blanket, sleeping bag, bedding, planter, chair or bench,” according to the bill’s current wording.
The so-called sit-lie bans have been controversial, with critics arguing that they shuffle homeless people around the island and that there isn’t sufficient shelter space to accommodate the island’s approximately 1,500 homeless who are living on the streets.
“The point is not to chase them all around, but to get them into housing.” — Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga
Since the ban on sitting and lying on Waikiki sidewalks passed, homeless providers have reported that there has been no increase in the number of homeless entering shelters. Meanwhile, the homeless population appears to have increased in areas such as Kakaako and downtown Honolulu.
Fukunaga said that the homeless population around Chinatown has numbered from 50 to 100. At night, the homeless are lined up along the River Street sidewalk, sleeping in tents, on cardboard or in sleeping bags.
Fukunaga said homeless people in the area have increased since the Waikiki sit-lie bill went into effect, along with increased enforcement of park closure hours in the tourist hub.
The most recent expansion to commercial areas, including Chinatown, doesn’t apply to the outdoor malls. But she also noted that the city was moving forward in providing housing and shelter for the area’s chronically homeless.
Mental Health Kokua plans to move its Safe Haven Shelter, which assists mentally ill homeless people, to Pauahi Hale, a high-rise in downtown Chinatown. The move could allow it to assist as many as 100 clients, said Fukunaga.
“The point is not to chase them all around, but to get them into housing,” she said.
Fukunaga said that surveys indicate that the majority of homeless people living in the downtown area are suffering from mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, or both.
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