Honolulu received $9.8 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat homelessness last year, but any future funding could be in jeopardy.

That’s because HUD is wielding the power of federal purse-strings to crack down on efforts to criminalize homelessness — something critics say Honolulu is doing with its expanding sit-lie ban.

HUD announced last month that it would tie its funding partially to whether local communities are steering clear of criminalization measures.

A homeless man sits on a sidewalk in Chinatown.
A homeless man sits on a sidewalk in Chinatown. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Each year, HUD distributes nearly $2 billion in grants nationwide to local “continuums of care” — coalitions of nonprofit service providers and government  — to address homelessness. The grants are made on a competitive basis, and dollar amounts are determined based on a lengthy questionnaire that must be filled out by each applicant.

For the fiscal year 2015 funding cycle, HUD is asking the applicants to describe “specific strategies implemented” — such as engaging local policymakers and law enforcement officials — to “ensure that homelessness is not criminalized.”

In Honolulu, the $9.8 million was funneled last year to Partners in Care, a coalition that’s made up of 30 agencies on Oahu.

It’s uncertain whether the coalition will lose money due to the sit-lie ban — and, if so, how much.

Trend Toward Criminalization

HUD’s move is part of a broader campaign by the Obama administration to push back against an array of “anti-homeless” measures nationwide.

In recent years, scores of cities have enacted laws aimed at cracking down on the markers of homelessness: sleeping in cars, sitting and lying on sidewalks, asking passersby for spare changes — even sharing food with homeless people.

Last year, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty found that people camping out in public parks and sidewalks faced bans in 64 cities, a 60 percent jump since 2011.

Another study found that 58 cities in California had a total of more than 500 anti-vagrancy laws on the books.

“If you go back and look at the history of the testimonies on the sit-lie, (Partners in Care) has not objected to criminalization. So I would not expect us to get any points in terms of that.” — Jenny Lee, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice

But, in August, the U.S. Justice Department took a stand against one such measure, a law in Boise, Idaho, that criminalizes outdoor sleeping. The department filed a brief in a federal case to challenge the law, arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Three weeks later, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness took a similar stance, publishing an advisory on best practices for dealing with homeless encampments that specifically discourages cities from clearing them by force.

On Sept. 18, HUD, which has voiced its opposition to criminalization efforts in the past, joined the fray, with the release of its latest Notice of Funding Availability.

According to the notice, the applicants who have a solid anti-criminalization strategy can be rewarded with up to two points. Even though up to 200 points are available for the applicants, Ed Cabrera, homeless liaison at HUD’s Region 9, which covers Hawaii, says that’s significant — in a very competitive process, a few points can make or break an application.

Homeless advocates have hailed the move.

“We welcome the federal government’s direction of tax limited dollars to the places that will most effectively use that money to address homelessness,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, said in a statement. “The federal government cannot sustainably meet its goals of ending veterans’ homelessness this year, chronic homelessness next year and all homelessness by 2020 if communities continue to waste scarce tax dollars on failed policies that perpetuate homelessness.”

Jenny Lee, public policy director for the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says HUD is making “an important policy statement.”

“It’s saying that criminalization is not effective; it’s actually counterproductive,” Lee said. “At the very least, as a practical matter, it’s a policy directive that puts the onus on all the local entities to not tend toward criminalization.”

Impact Still Uncertain

It’s unclear how much impact the new policy will have on the HUD funding prospects for Partners in Care.

Marc Gannon, the coalition’s planning committee chair, says it’s too early to assess the situation.

“The fact of the matter is, the NOFA was released only a few weeks ago. So we’re still working as a broad coalition with a lot of stakeholders — there’s a lot of moving parts — to figure out how this component will affect our overall application package,” Gannon said.

Partners in Care Greg Payton. 17 aug 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Greg Payton, chairman of Partners in Care, contends that the sit-lie ban doesn’t criminalize homelessness, but many people disagree. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Cabrera says the fact that Honolulu has the sit-lie ban on the books alone shouldn’t wreck Partners in Care’s application, even though the city is technically part of the continuum of care as a “collaborative applicant.”

“What makes a difference is how the continuums of care are working to mitigate the effects of measures in place that are criminalizing homelessness,” Cabrera said.

Colin Kippen, who served as the governor’s coordinator on homelessness until July, says Partners in Care has something to show for its efforts in that respect.

“They can respond that they have stepped up the cooperation and coordination among the providers to help homeless people who find themselves in a situation where they are being swept,” Kippen said. “The example is what you’re now witnessing — the intense outreach coordination that’s happening in Kakaako and elsewhere.”

“I don’t think there will be any negative consequences of the sit-lie for our continuum of care to be funded.” — Greg Payton, chair of Partners in Care

HUD will also consider whether the applicants are engaging in policy advocacy, Cabrera said.

“It’s important that (the continuums of care) are reaching out to lawmakers to show through research that criminalizing homelessness doesn’t work,” Cabrera said.

Lee says Partners in Care may fall short on that criteria.

“To be frank, there hasn’t been a clear consensus among service providers about the wisdom of laws like the sit-lie, and we have not taken any position in opposition to or in support of them,” Lee said. “If you go back and look at the history of the testimonies on the sit-lie, (Partners in Care) has not objected to criminalization. So I would not expect us to get any points in terms of that.”

Greg Payton, CEO of Mental Health Kokua and chair of the coalition, says he isn’t worried — based on a belief that the sit-lie ban is “not intended to criminalize the homeless.”

“I don’t think there will be any negative consequences of the sit-lie for our continuum of care to be funded,” Payton said. “The purpose of the sit-lie is to try to clear up the sidewalks. l know that the mayor and his administration have been pretty careful not to cross that line, so they’ve intentionally tried not to criminalize the homeless.”

City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who has voted in support of all sit-lie measures, says she’s willing to take a look at what the City Council can do help Partners in Care’s application, but she stopped short of endorsing a repeal of the sit-lie ban.

“We don’t want our nonprofits to not be able to get the money that they deserve, so we’d have to work with (Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s) administration to figure out what to do,” Kobayashi said. “But we’re always reluctant to pass an ordinance unless there’s teeth in it. If we tell someone to not do something, and what happens if they do it. So that’s why the criminalization part is in the sit-lie.”

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