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Steve Young was standing next to his aging BMW scooter, near the corner of Ilalo and Keawe streets, checking in on his friend.
It was just before 11 a.m. on Thursday, and Young knew that the city’s maintenance crew was coming soon to sweep the area.
Young was ready: His belongings, neatly packed up in his backpack and a small basket, were already loaded onto his scooter.
But his friend wasn’t. He remained inside a sturdy plywood-reinforced structure, apparently still packing.
“I told him yesterday that he’d better get ready and move,” Young said.
It was too late.
Within minutes, the maintenance crew descended on the area and cordoned it off with a red tape, and Young’s friend — who declined to talk to reporters — managed to grab only a few things before he was forced to leave.
By the time the sweep was over, after about 90 minutes, a half dozen tents and tarp-covered structures on the stretch of Ilalo Street — just across from the University of Hawaii medical school — were all gone, tossed into a dump truck.
In many ways, the scene was nothing out of the ordinary; after all, it plays out five days a week, as the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance dispatches its crew to enforce the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.
“There’s times when people say, ‘No. Just get rid of it. Because I can’t afford the $200 (retrieval fee) to get everything back.'” — Ross Sasamura, facility maintenance director
But Thursday’s sweep, the second in as many weeks in Kakaako, came one day after a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court in an effort to prevent more sweeps.
The lawsuit, filed by 15 people — who are or have been homeless — alleges that the city is illegally cracking down on the homeless by removing their belongings and immediately destroying them — rather than storing them for 30 days and allowing their retrieval, as specified by the statutes.
Saying that the city’s action amounts to an infringement of their constitutional rights, the plaintiffs are seeking a court order to halt the sweeps, as well as compensation for their destroyed belongings.
“If you go down to Kakaako and look at the signs that are posted in that area, the signs very clearly state the city intends to immediately destroy things like tarps, tent poles, and food from our clients,” said Daniel Gluck, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, which is representing the plaintiffs along with the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing.
But city officials are standing firm, vowing to continue the sweeps as planned.
“The Department of the Corporation Counsel will defend the city in this lawsuit vigorously,” Corporation Counsel Donna Leong said Wednesday in a statement.
The two statutes allow the city to remove items left on sidewalks — but it requires a 24-hour notice under the stored property ordinance, while immediate removal is allowed under the sidewalk nuisance ordinance, so long as items are deemed “nuisances.”
But provisions in both statutes also call for any removed item to be stored for a minimum of 30 days, and the plaintiffs allege that the city routinely skirts this obligation.
“The Fourth and Fourteenth amendments prohibit the government from seizing a person’s property and destroying it without due process, but that’s exactly what happened to the plaintiffs,” Kristin Holland, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said in a statement. “We will seek all available remedies for our clients and will work to ensure that these violations do not recur.”
“If you go down to Kakaako and look at the signs that are posted in that area, the signs very clearly state the city intends to immediately destroy things like tarps, tent poles, and food.” — Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii
But Ross Sasamura, the facility maintenance director, says the city is following all the rules.
“I can’t comment on the actual legal action that’s pending, but what I’ll say is that all of our enforcement actions comply with the ordinances,” Sasamura said. “We’ve withstood a legal challenge before, and we’ll make sure we don’t infringe on anybody’s rights.”
Despite the lawsuit, Sasamura says the department won’t be doing anything differently: “We don’t take (an item) and throw it away if it’s obviously somebody’s property that is valuable to them. If you have a bag full of trash and litter, and you leave it here, then we’ll take it and throw it away.”
But determining what’s valuable appeared subjective Thursday morning, with so much to sift through. Still, the maintenance crew went on to toss nearly everything into the dump truck.
That included the plywood home of Young’s friend.
Midway through the sweep, Young cruised back to the scene on his scooter and told two sheriff’s deputies: “I’m pretty sure my friend wants the blue tent stored.”
But Sasamura later told Civil Beat that Young’s friend had given a go-ahead to take down the structure before he left.
In general, Sasamura says, tents are thrown away “if the person tells us to get rid of it.”
“There are times when people are there when we come in, and we would ask them to take their valuables and anything they can carry with them. And then we ask them, ‘Do you want anything to be stored?'” Sasamura said. “There’s times when people say, ‘No. Just get rid of it. Because I can’t afford the $200 (retrieval fee) to get everything back.’ Or, ‘I just don’t want them anymore. I’ll just find something else.'”