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A federal court has denied a request for a temporary restraining order to halt city sweeps of homeless encampments in Honolulu.
U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor ruled Tuesday that the court lacked “sufficient information” to determine whether the continued enforcement of the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances would cause “irreparable harm.”
A group of nine homeless individuals, who are among the 15 plaintiffs named in a federal class-action lawsuit filed last week, was asking the court to prevent more sweeps, saying that the city is illegally cracking down on the homeless by removing their belongings and immediately destroying them.
The plaintiffs, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing, allege that the city’s actions amount to a violation of its own statutes — by failing to impound removed items for at least 30 days, as specified — as well as infringement of their basic rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth amendments of the Constitution.
Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, told the court that his clients are “fearful that the city will sweep them and seize and immediately destroy their shelters.”
Gluck noted that, during the past few weeks, the city has posted signs throughout the Kakaako homeless encampment saying it intends to “dispose of any ‘construction materials … poles, wooden structures and tarps'” during the sweeps.
“Those are the kinds of things our clients use for shelter in the area,” Gluck said.
Since the lawsuit was filed Sept. 16, the city has already conducted three sweeps in Kakaako — including one just hours before Tuesday’s hearing. During the first two sweeps, on Sept. 16 and Monday, a crew from the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance removed nearly 10.5 tons of trash, according to Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.
The information from Tuesday’s sweep is not yet available.
At the court, Ernest Nomura, deputy corporation counsel for the city, insisted that the maintenance crew removes and immediately destroys only items that are “obviously trash.”
Nomura added that the signs posted in Kakaako are “purely informative” and “never intended to serve as a legal notice” that’s called for by the stored property ordinance.
Gillmor ruled that further findings of the fact by the court would be necessary before she can grant the plaintiffs’ request, saying, “We don’t have the meeting of the minds of the parties” over even the basic facts about the sweeps.
Corporation Counsel Donna Leong released a statement after the ruling, saying that the city will continue the sweeps.
“We are pleased with today’s decision, and the Department of the Corporation Counsel will continue to defend the city,” Leong said. “Honolulu’s stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances have withstood challenges in federal court before, and we believe they will survive the current challenge.”
Tabatha Martin, one of the plaintiffs, told reporters outside the court that she’d have no idea where she’d go if her family was swept up from Kakaako.
“Whatever they think is trash … to them, but to the homeless it’s actually a necessity,” said Martin, who lives with her husband, Tracy, and their 4-year-old daughter, T.M., along the crowded stretch of Ohe Street near the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.
Gillmor set a hearing on the plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction for Dec. 14, giving enough time to the city to depose the 15 plaintiffs.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs’ attorneys, noting that their motion was denied “without prejudice,” told Civil Beat that they are likely to submit an amended motion before December.
“The city can’t continue along this path, thinking that this is the solution to the homelessness,” Gluck said.
Watch a video of Tuesday’s sweep: