For Corilynn Wallace, the sweep couldn’t have come at a worse time.
It was Nov. 13, 2014, and Wallace was nine months pregnant. She says she was inside her tent when the city’s maintenance crew cordoned off the area around her in Kakaako and began clearing the encampment.
Wallace tried to pick up what she could, but most of her possessions ended up getting tossed into a dump truck.
Under the terms of the statutes, Wallace had 30 days to retrieve her items — or they would be thrown out.
As it happened, that was too short of a time window for Wallace, who gave birth to her son 10 days later. She simply had to give up on her property.
It’s not that Wallace wasn’t familiar with the process for getting her stuff back. After a sweep a year earlier, also in Kakaako, she received a notice instructing her how to retrieve her items, so she followed every step.
First, Wallace scrounged up $200 and went to Honolulu Hale to pay the retrieval fee. She then called to make an appointment to visit a storage facility in Halawa. Finally, she borrowed a truck from her friend and drove nine miles from Kakaako to Halawa.
At the end of it all, Wallace came away bitterly disappointed: Most of her expensive electronics — a Toshiba laptop, a Samsung tablet, an iPad, and her daughter’s two iPod touches — were missing, apparently thrown out during the sweep.
“Everything that was of value was not there when I went to get it back,” Wallace said. “They say they have a process for us to get our things back, but what they’re not saying is how much of it is actually stored and what goes missing. That’s the messed up part that we have to deal with.”
Critics say Wallace’s experience is a case study in the city’s failure to establish a meaningful system for homeless people to retrieve their confiscated property.
In fact, the system is so woefully inadequate that it amounts to an infringement of due process rights, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by 15 people who are or have been homeless.
“Even if the city were to impound the property, the procedures for getting it back are so onerous and byzantine that most people decide, ‘Look, it’s futile for me to try to go get my property back.’” 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.
Ross Sasamura, director of the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance, declined to comment for this story, citing the pending lawsuit.
But, in court documents, city attorneys say that the city refined its procedures two years ago in response to a pair of federal lawsuits filed by members of De-Occupy Honolulu and now has court-sanctioned “safeguards” in place to prevent “an erroneous deprivation of … anyone’s personal property.”
The procedures, the attorneys say, are spelled out clearly on the “tag” issued for each impounded property, informing its owner that “the initial removal and/or assessment of fees against him” can be contested by filing a written request.
“Even if the city were to impound the property, the procedures for getting it back are so onerous and byzantine that most people decide, ‘Look, it’s futile for me to try to go get my property back.’” — Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii
The tag also informs that the $200 retrieval fee, which the city says is imposed for the cost “of removal, storage and handling of the sidewalk-nuisance,” could be waived “if payment would be financially onerous for you.”
Gluck says people have to jump through hoops to get that waiver.
For one thing, they must first secure the application form by either traveling to the Kapolei Hale — the sole city location where printed forms are available — or by finding a computer and printing out an online copy.
To complete the form, which is six pages long and available only in English — in violation, Gluck says, of Hawaii’s Language Access Law — they must provide a mailing address and answer a myriad of financial questions.
The form doesn’t indicate how long they should expect to wait to hear back, though Sasamura says the response should arrive “in a reasonable amount of time.”
Jenny Lee, public policy director for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says the whole process is too cumbersome to be practical.
“Given the challenges unsheltered people are facing, I think this system effectively deprives them of their property rights,” Lee said.
Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations at The Institute for Human Services, says his agency’s outreach workers often pass out flyers, letting people know that they can help navigate the process.
“We have fee waiver applications here at IHS so that clients needing our assistance to advocate on their behalf may fill it out, we will submit and use IHS as their mailing address/contact … and we will help them reclaim their belongings,” Carvalho said.
Wallace says she could have used the waiver when she was going through the process two years ago. “I wasn’t working at the time, so $200 was a lot of money,” she said.
But Wallace ultimately opted not to apply.
“I couldn’t wait for my things — I needed my things back right away — and it was too difficult for me to travel all the way out to Kapolei and then have to go a second time out to Halawa to actually get my things back,” she said.