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Hawaii’s homelessness problem is large, complex and not going away anytime soon. Finding places to live for individuals and families in this state, where housing is more expensive than any other and where the climate makes houselessness and survival possible, poses a particular challenge.
Thankfully, Gov. David Ige created a statewide leadership task force on homelessness last summer that brings together a critical mass of individuals with the authority and leverage to get solutions moving. Since then, we’ve seen new progress on transitional and long-term housing, more housing success in Honolulu for homeless veterans, progress on implementing the Housing First initiative, and better cooperation among federal, state and local government representatives.
But with all that in the background, now comes state Rep. Isaac Choy with a plan to take one of the most problematic and controversial responses to homelessness in Hawaii — Honolulu’s sit-lie ban — and turn it into statewide law.
There are so many reasons why this is a fundamentally bad idea, it’s hard to know where to begin. But here are perhaps the most significant:
First, legality. When Honolulu sought to expand its sit-lie ban last summer, it had to override Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s veto to do so. Caldwell cited potential constitutionality issues and the legal advice of the city’s corporation counsel in rejecting the measure, and the expanded ban could still face legal challenges.
When “anti-homeless” statues and ordinances have been passed around the country, many have been successfully challenged in court, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Seventy percent of challenges against sleeping in public, for instance, have succeeded, and one of the main components of Choy’s bill is its ban on the “use and occupation of state property as a temporary or permanent … place for sleeping.”
There are so many reasons why this is a fundamentally bad idea, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Bills that begin on shaky legal ground rarely find their way to firmer footing.
Second, efficacy. Sit-lie’s effectiveness as a so-called “compassionate disruption” tool to prod the homeless into shelters is questionable, at best.
Implemented in Honolulu over the objections of critics who said the measure would fail without temporary shelter in place, sit-lie lived down to those expectations. Homeless individuals simply moved from Waikiki and Chinatown into other neighborhoods, causing headaches where few existed before.
A University of Hawaii study conducted during the first six months of the sit-lie ban found clear evidence that the policy caused “multiple harms to one of the most vulnerable populations in the islands.” It recommended putting the policy on hold until temporary shelter could be identified for affected individuals.
While sit-lie has helped to reduce the number of homeless people in Waikiki — pushing the visibility of one of Hawaii’s most unsightly problems just out of the view of its biggest tourist population — there’s little or no reason to believe it’s making a positive difference anywhere, as opposed to simply hassling the homeless into moving just a little further down the road.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, why? As noted above, federal, state and local officials and agencies are finally working together in a state task force that is yielding results.
We’re among many who wish progress was happening faster, that more temporary housing, shelter space, public housing and affordable dwellings were available.
But this bill would have zero effect on housing. Instead, it would criminalize camping on Hawaii beaches and nearby state-owned lands. It would criminalize the 200 or so people who live in a self-governed and admirably functional homeless community on Oahu’s west coast profiled in a 2015 Civil Beat special report, The Harbor.
It would do the same to many others in Waianae or Waimanalo, who are managing to eke out an existence in discrete, seaside camps, or in Wahiawa, close to agricultural lands and military bases, or countless others, living hand to mouth on state land on Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai.
Homelessness won’t be dealt with throughout Hawaii by further criminalizing the homeless, as Choy’s bill seeks to do. Collaborative, strategically planned efforts, such as those taking shape in Ige’s state task force, provide the most promising route forward.
And even those efforts won’t amount to much unless Choy and his fellow legislators embrace the idea that in this state, with its exorbitant cost of housing, it will take more money to make a difference in the moral imperative of housing for the homeless. That’s money that the Legislature so far has been unwilling to appropriate in quantities sufficient to meet the challenge of 7,000-plus people living on Hawaii’s streets.
Choy claims he filed the bill because of business owners in his district who complained about homeless people living under a small stretch of freeway. He also said efforts by authorities to sweep homeless off city and county property in Honolulu sometimes fail because those targeted simply move onto state property, where local government crews have no authority.
As rationales, both are pretty thin. But as grist for the media mill, both Choy’s claims and the bill itself certainly generated plenty of election-year publicity.
Once the bill was filed last week, it quickly made the rounds of Hawaii media, including brief treatment in Civil Beat; and wire coverage made it available to media around the country, where it made our state look, once again, like a regressive backwater. Careful readers might recall Hawaii last made national news on this issue when another state representative, who had previously taken a sledgehammer to shopping carts used by homeless people, was assaulted last summer at a homeless camp when he refused to stop photographing some of the residents.
“We don’t know of anything like this in any other state, certainly not any other state laws that specifically target sitting and lying down in public places,” Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, told the Associated Press, in an account picked up by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “This seems like one further, very discouraging effort in the state of Hawaii to really take a very counter-productive approach to address the homelessness crisis in the state.”
Headlines for Rep. Choy, perhaps. But they don’t add up to solutions for Hawaii and its homeless.