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The fact that Tracy Martin has found housing should be a happy ending.
The 49-year-old Waipahu native and his family made headlines last summer as an example of the harmful impacts of the city’s efforts to drive homeless people out of beaches and parks.
Martin, his wife and his young daughter lost everything when Honolulu officials took their tent where it was pitched in Kakaako and disposed of it and all their belongings.
Since then, a social service organization helped the Martin family find housing in Waikiki. But although his wife is now working, Martin hasn’t been able to find a job. His lost ID is a major barrier — he can’t prove that he’s legally allowed to work, and he hasn’t been able to obtain a replacement.
“It’s like I don’t exist,” Martin said.
He is one of the thousands of Honolulu residents who have been on the receiving end of warnings, citations or arrests under the city’s “compassionate disruption” policy, which involves aggressively enforcing the city’s nuisance laws and stored property ordinance, and passing new measures that ban sitting or lying on sidewalks in Waikiki and Chinatown.
While Mayor Kirk Caldwell has lauded the policy’s effectiveness in cleaning up the streets, advocates for homeless people are fighting back in the halls of the Capitol.
State lawmakers are debating several bills aimed at mitigating the negative consequences of the policy which critics view as criminalizing homelessness.
Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland introduced Senate Bill 269 to allow homeless people to erase convictions for violating the city’s sit-lie bans. The measure passed the Judiciary Committee on Monday and is now heading to the full Senate for a vote.
Chun Oakland also introduced Senate Bill 273 to allow homeless people to apply for state identification cards even without the required state and federal documents if a social service organization, attorney, member of the clergy, correctional institution staff, or health professional presents a signed statement certifying their personal information.
“There’s been no city in the country that has eliminated homelessness by making it illegal.” — Jerry Jones, director of the National Coalition for Homelessness
And two Senate committees plan to take up Senate Bill 1014 on Friday to create a Houseless Bill of Rights. Sen. Russell Ruderman from the Big Island introduced the proposal, which ensures “the right to use and move freely in public spaces” and “the right to equal treatment by all state and county agencies,” among other rights.
Ruderman said he’s not sure if the bill would conflict with local ordinances and simply wants to reaffirm that homeless people have the same rights as any other human being. Still, he said the proposal “wouldn’t be needed if houseless people were not being discriminated against right now.”
“It’s one thing to decide they shouldn’t be in a specific place, it’s another thing to remove all of their belongings,” Ruderman said.
Chun Oakland said she introduced SB 269 and SB 273 at the request of advocates for the homeless, including Kathryn Xian from the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery. Xian believes that they would bring back a measure of dignity to some of Hawaii’s most vulnerable residents.
“Houseless people need a remedy for these unconstitutional laws that are being passed by the city with abandon, without any consideration for their harmful effects,” Xian said.
The Caldwell administration has heralded the sit-lie bans as effective, but the Mayor’s Office declined to make Caldwell available for an interview. Spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said in an email that the mayor has no comment on the legislation.
While the Honolulu Police Department has issued nearly 2,000 warnings since the sit-lie ban went into effect, Broder Van Dyke said there have been few arrests: only two in Waikiki since the sit-lie ban was enacted in September, and only three in the downtown-Chinatown area since that ban took effect in December.
George Szigeti, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the sit-lie ban has made Waikiki cleaner and safer. Still, he said that as recently as Tuesday he received an email from a tourist complaining about homeless people.
Buoyed by support from the tourism industry and business owners, the mayor has sought to extend the ban’s boundaries beyond Waikiki. Most recently, he signed a bill to prohibit sitting and lying on pedestrian malls in downtown and Chinatown, including Fort Street Mall.
But forcing homeless people to migrate to the fringes of the city doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves it out of sight, their advocates contend.
While Caldwell has said that one effect of sit-lie bans should be to convince more people to stay at shelters, data collected by the social service organization PHOCUSED shows that vacancy rates for emergency shelters have remained relatively steady since sit-lie bans went into effect.
Meanwhile, homeless camps have ballooned in Kakaako and Kalihi, which aren’t included in the city’s sit-lie bans.
And while business owners may be pleased with the cleaner streets, many homeless people feel victimized, advocates say.
Chun Oakland said she is supporting SB 269 because convictions for disobeying the sit-lie ban would make it harder for homeless people to find housing.
She passed SB 273 out of the Senate Housing Committee, which she chairs, in hopes that it will make it easier for homeless residents to get state IDs if they lose them in a police sweep. The measure is awaiting a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She didn’t introduce it, but Chun Oakland also supports the proposed Houseless Bill of Rights. Among other rights, the bill emphasizes that homeless people are allowed to sleep in legally parked cars.
Xian is the most vocal advocate for the proposals.
She said that convictions and missing IDs are barriers to getting housing and the measures aim to address that.
But while many homeless advocates agree that the mayor’s “compassionate disruption” policy is hurting, not helping, the homeless, not everyone is on board with the bills.
They weren’t included in the Senate’s 2014 Housing and Homeless Legislative Package. Most of those bills are focused on getting more money to build more affordable housing or spruce up existing public housing.
Colin Kippen, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, believes the city’s sit-lie bans criminalize homelessness, but that the solution is to create more housing.
“We’re focused on trying to end homelessness,” Kippen said. “We just think that there’s just not enough hours in the day to have divided strategies … I’m in the business of trying to create a permanent solution and I think the permanent solution is trying to house people first.”
While he’s opposed to the city’s sit-lie bans, he has reservations about SB 269 because he’s not sure whether a state law can vacate a conviction for a city offense. He’s also worried that SB 273, which aims to help homeless people get state IDs, conflicts with federal law. Instead, Kippen supports Senate Bill 192, which would create a fee waiver for homeless people to get IDs. That proposal has more broad-based support among homeless advocates.
“Should this bill cross over, then you can darn well bet we’ll have the hotel and lodging industry come out because that’s what happened with my bill last year.” — Rep. John Mizuno, referring to a proposed Houseless Bill of Rights
Kippen also thinks the Houseless Bill of Rights duplicates existing law, although he still sees its value.
“The bill is really intended to elevate a conversation about the policies that we’re implementing and the ultimate impact and effect,” he said. “In one way you could argue that it’s superfluous but I think the intention of the bill is to really move the conversation forward about our various city ordinances and to answer the question: What are we really intending to do here and how effective is it in ending homelessness?”
Jerry Jones, director of the National Coalition for Homelessness, said Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois have adopted Homeless Bill of Rights legislation, and that they help ensure the homeless aren’t singled out for adverse treatment.
Jones had never heard of laws that allow homeless people to vacate prior convictions or allow someone to sign for them in lieu of an ID. But he suggested Hawaii could be a model for other states where similar sit-lie bans are in effect.
“The fact that they are ineffective and harass people who are in need of help rather than punishment make these ordinances very bad public policy,” Jones said of the bans. “There’s been no city in the country that has eliminated homelessness by making it illegal.”
While the bills to counteract some of the effects of the city’s homelessness policies have been moving through the Senate, there’s no guarantee that they’ll ultimately become law.
Rep. John Mizuno doubts they will.
Last year, the lawmaker from Kalihi introduced a bill similar to Ruderman’s that would have created a “Houseless Bill of Rights.”
“With complete respect to the County of Honolulu, I think it’s important that we respect humanity,” Mizuno told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser at the time.
But the morning that the newspaper reported on the bill, Mizuno remembers his brother-in-law, who worked for the Honolulu Police Department for 32 years, looking at him and saying, “Brah you’re in the paper, how can you expect the police officers to do their work?”
Mizuno didn’t just take heat from his family. He got a lot of calls and emails, the vast majority negative.
Mizuno said after getting so much criticism, he thought the bill was doomed. But it passed the House and even one committee in the Senate. That’s when he got a call from a lobbyist representing the hotel and lodging industry.
The lobbyist convinced Mizuno that while the bill had good intentions, it wasn’t practical. Then-Sen. Clayton Hee didn’t hold a hearing for the bill in the Judiciary Committee and the measure died.
This year Mizuno introduced the Houseless Bill of Rights again in the House, but he didn’t ask his colleagues to sign onto it because it’s so controversial. House Committee on Housing Chairman Mark Hashem didn’t hold a hearing on it.
Szigeti from the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association said his organization doesn’t have a position on the Houseless Bill of Rights. But he suggested the proposal defies common sense.
“You can’t be carving out a bill of rights for every individual group that’s having a hard time,” Szigeti said.
Mizuno thinks Ruderman is brave to be advocating for the issue again in the Senate. But Mizuno believes putting together a task force on homelessness would be more realistic.
“Should this bill cross over, then you can darn well bet we’ll have the hotel and lodging industry come out because that’s what happened with my bill last year,” Mizuno said. “I’ve seen this movie before, I kind of know how it’s going to turn out.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that SB 273 would help homeless residents obtain driver’s licenses. The bill seeks to help them obtain state IDs.