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The rain was drizzling off and on throughout the early hours of Wednesday, but Stash and Carrie were staying snug and dry under the canopy in front of Queen Emma Mart, a mom-and-pop convenience store on South Vineyard Street.
The couple were among a handful of homeless people who had taken refuge there for the night — only to be rousted awake at around 2:30 a.m., when the city’s maintenance crew, accompanied by three police officers, showed up and cordoned off the area with red tape.
The maintenance crew was there to enforce the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances, and Stash and Carrie — who declined to give their last names — knew they had only a few minutes to collect their belongings and move along.
Under flood lights from one of the city trucks, Stash and Carrie worked hurriedly, but they needed some time to finish loading everything onto a shopping cart.
For one thing, Stash was fighting an infection in his injured right knee and required two crutches to get around. Carrie, for her part, was busy taking care of an acquaintance, who was about to be taken into custody on an outstanding warrant.
Meanwhile, members of the maintenance crew, clad in orange safety vests, stood a few yards away, patiently waiting for the couple to finish up.
After about 20 minutes, Stash and Carrie were finally done, with their belongings stacked up more than 5 feet tall on their cart.
Only a few items remained on the sidewalk — some crumpled bed sheets and a plastic basket with small items inside. With Carrie’s consent, the maintenance crew removed the items and threw them into a yellow dump truck.
Once the maintenance crew drove away, Carrie said the sweep was markedly different from her past experiences.
“They’ve taken a lot of my stuff before. And they would tell me stuff like, ‘We don’t ever want to see you again.’ They had no heart,” Carrie said. “But they were awesome tonight. One of them just came right up to me and said, ‘We’re going to let you keep all your stuff, but we’ve got to do a sweep.’ They’ve never been quite as nice as they were tonight.”
The experience of Stash and Carrie may be indicative of the city’s new approach to the sweeps — the result of a court-sanctioned agreement that spells out what the maintenance crew is allowed to do.
The agreement, signed as part of the ongoing federal class-action lawsuit, prohibits the maintenance crew from throwing out any items that are considered a “sidewalk nuisance” or “personal property” during the sweeps, unless they are determined to be perishable or hazardous.
In essence, the agreement only requires the city to follow the terms of the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances to the letter: If any item is removed, the city is bound by both statutes to store it for a minimum of 30 days.
The city has long maintained that it’s an obligation it already abides by.
“We don’t take (an item) and throw it away if it’s obviously somebody’s property that is valuable to them,” Ross Sasamura, director of the Honolulu Department of Facility Maintenance, told Civil Beat in September, as he oversaw the city’s weeks-long attempt in Kakaako to clear out what was then Honolulu’s biggest homeless encampment. “If you have a bag full of trash and litter, and you leave it here, then we’ll take it and throw it away.”
“They were awesome tonight. One of them just came right up to me and said, ‘We’re going to let you keep all your stuff, but we’ve got to do a sweep.’ They’ve never been quite as nice as they were tonight.” — Carrie, a homeless woman
But 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 has routinely removed belongings required for “mere existence” and “the care of their children” — including tents, clothes, identification documents and even heart medication — and immediately thrown them away.
The agreement is aimed at resolving the dispute by detailing what items the city is required to store.
The items include: “tents, tarps, children’s toys, suitcases, laundry baskets, shelves/crates, backpacks, baby strollers/cribs, air compressors, recreational items like surfboards, bicycles, clothing, bedding, coolers, household goods and furniture.”
Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii, says the agreement, if followed properly, should bring substantial changes to the city’s behavior.
“If the city continues to conduct itself like it did in Kakaako in the last two months, it is subject to being held in contempt of court,” Gluck said in a statement after the agreement was reached.
Sasamura declined to comment for this story. Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell, said: “Given the pending lawsuit, the city is unable to comment.”
On two nights last week, Civil Beat followed the maintenance crew to observe its enforcement efforts.
On any given day, the sweeps are conducted at several locations, typically in two shifts — one starting at either 1 a.m. or 3 a.m.; the other at 7:30 a.m.
On Wednesday, the maintenance crew arrived at Aala Park at around 1 a.m. and went on to visit several spots in and around Chinatown. On Friday, it turned up in Waikiki at 3 a.m. and swept the areas along the district’s famous beaches and around the Honolulu Zoo.
On both nights, the maintenance crew was taking a decidedly more laid-back approach to the sweeps than it did in Kakaako, seemingly content to wait for homeless people to pack up their belongings — however long it took.
At College Walk and North Kukui Street, the crew members watched as a woman packed up her large tent at a leisurely pace. When she was done, in about 15 minutes, only some errant debris remained, which they threw into a dump truck before driving away.
The approach has one upside: By allowing people to take all of their belongings with them, the crew members are left with few items that they need to take to the storage facility in Halawa.
The crew member also appeared no longer interested in throwing out everything left unattended by homeless people, as they did during the Kakaako sweep.
On Wednesday, for instance, the crew members cruised to a small park at the intersection of Smith and North Pauahi streets and found three unattended shopping carts full of random items. They eventually decided to leave the carts alone and moved on to the next spot.
In Waikiki, the crew members encountered, and moved along, mostly individuals sleeping illegally at parks and beaches with few belongings.
An exception was a man sitting on a park bench with a shopping cart full of his belongings: two backpacks, two suitcases and a large duffel bag. To return the cart to a grocer, the crew members persuaded the man to unload it and then hauled it off on a flatbed truck.
A few yards away, across Kalakaua Avenue from the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort and Spa, the crew members found a cylinder-shaped pillow and six body boards stacked next to a beach picnic table. They placed the items in a green plastic bin and wrote up a “storage and disposal notice” — as required under the sidewalk nuisance ordinance — and then taped it to the bench to notify the owners.
“We’re looking for a permanent injunction … That will assure that the city will stop its past practice of seizing and immediately destroying property.” — Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii
Gluck says he’s “somewhat encouraged” by the recent activity.
“We have people out monitoring the city’s enforcement actions. Much of what’s been reported to us is that the city is complying with the terms of stipulation,” Gluck said. “But we also know that there’s a lot of sweeps that happen when we don’t have an observer present, so we want to be really careful in ensuring that the city follows the court’s order.”
Ultimately, Gluck says, the plaintiffs are looking to extend the agreement by prevailing in the lawsuit.
“We’re looking for a permanent injunction, which we hope to get after the trial that we’ll have at the end of January. That will assure that the city will stop its past practice of seizing and immediately destroying property,” Gluck said.
For his part, Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, says he’s unconvinced that the sweeps — even when conducted properly — accomplish anything beyond shuffling people around.
“There’s a difference between simply wasting the resources, and wasting the resources while making the problem worse by taking people’s IDs and other valuables. So I think it’s an improvement if the city is really following the rules,” Thornton said. “But the basic fact remains that the city is pouring money into efforts that do not address the root cause of the problem.”