Honolulu’s policy of moving homeless people out of sight of tourists isn’t likely to change anytime soon, because it’s supported by all three of the best-known candidates for mayor.
The city has been cracking down on visible homelessness in response to complaints from residents and visitors. Critics say it makes criminals out of the downtrodden.
Incumbent Kirk Caldwell, former mayor Peter Carlisle and former congressman Charles Djou all support city laws that make it illegal to sit or lie in certain places, urinate or defecate in public or leave private possessions on public property.
Carlisle, a former prosecutor, took a get-tough approach to homelessness when he was mayor from 2010 to 2012. He signed a law banning people from storing their possessions on city property, and ordered the clearing-out of a well-established encampment on the leeward shore.
In an interview in 2011, he compared the state of the encampment to a “rat infestation”.
When Caldwell became mayor in 2012, he launched a strategy called “compassionate disruption,” which sought to push homeless people out of public places and into shelters. Over the past four years, nine such ordinances have become law.
Djou, a former City Council member, has been supporting similar measures for at least a decade. He also backed sweeps of Ala Moana Park and Kapiolani Park, contending in 2009 that the presence of “vagrants” was unacceptable.
The relative unity of the candidates on the issue would seem to be good news for business owners and Honolulu residents who don’t want to see homeless people in Waikiki or business districts.
Megan Hustings, interim executive director at the National Coalition for the Homeless, had the opposite response.
“That’s actually terrifying,” she said of the candidates’ agreement.
The candidates do differ on the degree to which they want to use law enforcement tools to combat homelessness.
Caldwell has opposed further expansion of the city’s ban on sitting and lying on sidewalks due to concerns about its constitutionality, and his enforcement of that law has resulted in many warnings and citations but relatively few arrests.
The mayor said he is considering adding another team to conduct sweeps, but emphasized that he’s coupled enforcement with a push to house people, and claimed to have placed nearly 1,000 people in homes with the help of federal funding.
Djou would consider expanding the sit-lie ban, and wants more enforcement of the law. But he said that this is a “way lower priority” than his other plans to fund nonprofits and provide counseling to homeless people in need.
Carlisle said he supports more arrests and prosecutions of homeless people who break laws, and isn’t afraid of sparking more lawsuits by expanding the radius of the sit-lie ban.
“As a longtime prosecutor, if you don’t get sued by the ACLU you’re not doing your job,” Carlisle said.
That’s worrisome to Hustings and other national and local advocates for homeless people who argue that criminalizing homelessness wastes money that would be better allocated to permanent housing.
But the candidates’ embrace of a law enforcement approach to homelessness makes sense politically. It’s a good way to attract donations from the tourism industry, which has lobbied for the bills. And in a January Civil Beat poll of Oahu voters, 70 percent said increased enforcement of laws like the sit-lie ban bans is necessary.
The city’s push toward more punitive measures is by no means unique.
“We’re seeing an unfortunate trend of cities responding to increased homelessness with these sorts of punitive measures and it’s really baffling because it’s nowhere near effective,” Hustings said. “It doesn’t do anything to help solve homelessness.”
In 2009, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty ranked Honolulu the eighth “meanest city” in the U.S. for homelessness, in part because the city spent $11,000 to change bus stop seats to make it harder for homeless people to sleep on them.
If that was mean, the city has gotten meaner.
Carlisle was elected mayor in 2010, fresh off 13 years as a city prosecuting attorney. He took a hard-line approach to homelessness, cleaning out encampments at Windward Community College and along the Waianae coast.
In a recent interview, he said those actions both beautified those areas and cleaned up the environment.
Then-City Councilwoman Tulsi Gabbard, now a U.S. congresswoman, introduced a bill that made it illegal to keep personal belongings in a park after hours or in a public place for more than 24 hours. Carlisle signed the measure, known as the stored property ordinance, in 2011.
Carlisle said the ordinance was meant to ensure that people walking around with “hordes of trash” would stop “being in the public eye.”
Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” continued in the same vein. The idea was to force homeless people off the streets and into shelters.
The city passed nine more ordinances since Caldwell took office that included bans on urinating and defecating on public sidewalks and sitting or lying on sidewalks in business districts. Camping near streams was also outlawed.
People who violate those laws can be found guilty of a petty misdemeanor and could be subject to 30 days in jail or $1,000 fines.
Caldwell vetoed two efforts to expand the sit-lie ban out of concern for potential lawsuits, but the City Council overrode him.
“Our parks are made for everybody,” Caldwell said. “I am going to enforce all the laws whether you’re homeless or not.”
Hawaii’s tourism industry has praised the sit-lie ban and similar ordinances.
Mufi Hannemann, who preceded Carlisle as mayor and is now the executive director of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, said the Waikiki sit-lie ban has been an effective way to address homelessness in the state’s tourism hub.
Not everyone agrees, and even Caldwell has sometimes questioned the effectiveness of the strategy.
Last summer, the mayor suspended sweeps of homeless encampments in urban Honolulu and acknowledged in a TV interview that the strategy was not working.
“It is very troubling,” Caldwell told Hawaii News Now. “We have done enforcements in the past but what happens is they just move onto other state property, stand there, let us clean everything up on the sidewalk, then we leave and they move right back.”
His managing director, Roy Amemiya added, “”A year ago we put into place our compassionate disruption bills. We instituted sit-lie bills to move people out of Waikiki, out of downtown, out of Chinatown — but we didn’t give them a place to go.”
The mayor sounded a lot more confident in the laws in a recent interview with Civil Beat.
“I think it’s effective and we’re going to keep doing it,” Caldwell said. “If you allow it to be convenient for homeless people to be on sidewalks and parks they’ll stay on our sidewalks and parks.”
He said that some homeless people have said that they’ve agreed to go into housing after being forced to move from place to place during the city’s sweeps, and noted that service providers at Hawaii’s largest homeless shelter operation, the Institute for Human Services, support his policies.
Carlisle is more cynical, even of the impact of the sidewalk property ordinance that he championed.
“As long as homelessness is growing, it’s ineffective,” Carlisle said. “Do I think it’s putting money down a dark hole? Probably not. It probably had some good.”
Oahu’s homeless population rose by 18 percent from 2010 to 2016, from 4,171 people to 4,940 people, according to the city’s annual surveys. The percentage of unsheltered homeless people rose from nearly 33 percent to 44 percent over the same period.
Tristia Bauman of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty said a 2012 study from the University of California at Berkeley concluded there is “no meaningful evidence to support the arguments that sit-lie laws increase economic activity or improve services to homeless people.”
A report from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness published that same year urged communities to find alternatives to criminalizing homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Justice expressed a similar opinion last year in a brief opposing the criminalization of camping.
“Enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy,” the agency said. “Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future.”
A community’s effort to decrease the criminalization of homelessness is even a factor in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s determination of whether to award funding.
The sit-lie bans and similar laws aren’t cheap to enforce.
The Caldwell administration spends about $15,000 per week to enforce the sidewalk nuisance law and stored property ordinance.
That’s $780,000 per year — and that’s not counting police enforcement of the sit-lie bans and urination/defecation bans.
Police officers enforce those bans in the course of their daily work, so it’s tough to measure how much that costs. HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said the time it takes to enforce the laws depends on whether people cooperate, have identification and how many belongings they have.
But if each warning, citation and arrest took just 10 minutes, that would mean Honolulu police officers have spent some 675 hours enforcing the laws on the books since 2014.
The city’s enforcement of the measure sparked a lawsuit from a group that was camped in Thomas Square in 2011 during the national Occupy Wall Street Movement.
Members of De-Occupy Honolulu sued the city for seizing property without giving 24-hour notice, and settled for $1,000. City taxpayers had to pay an additional $72,000 in attorneys’ fees, but the law remained unchanged.
Caldwell’s tenure hasn’t been free of lawsuits either. Two members of De-Occupy Honolulu sued the city in protest of the sidewalk nuisance law in 2013 and the city settled for $16,400. The judge kept the law in place but ruled that people whose property is seized can request a hearing to waive the $200 fee to get their property back.
Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city for violating civil rights of people through its enforcement of the stored property ordinance and sidewalk nuisance law.
A top city official argued that the administration wasn’t destroying people’s property, it was merely putting it into a dump truck to get incinerated at a refuse facility. A judge pushed the city to limit what it throws away.
The Council approved a $48,000 settlement, on top of $150,000 already approved for attorneys’ fees to defend the city. That didn’t include money to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
“These laws, by misdirecting police resources toward criminalizing homelessness rather than housing homeless people, waste precious taxpayer dollars by implementing what is shown to be an ineffective policy,” said Bauman of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
Caldwell, Carlisle and Djou all defend the necessity of the laws, and say they’ll consider increasing enforcement.
“It’s not a question of whether we want to criminalize homelessness,” Djou said. “It’s whether or not we want or should allow any individual to take over a city park, a city beach, a city sidewalk and I don’t think anyone has the right to do that.”
He said some homeless people don’t understand that there’s an alternative to living on the street.
Bauman said that attitude doesn’t take into account reasons that people may not be entering shelters, such as the distance to them or the fear for their own safety.
“This kind of paternalistic view that if we threaten to arrest them then they will access the shelter assumes that it’s not a rational choice not to access the shelter,” she said.
Scott Fuji from PHOCUSED said the sit-lie measures can make it harder for social workers to keep track of homeless clients or even count how many of them there are. He said he’s not sure what the point of the sit-lie bans is.
“Driving them away is not beneficial in the long term,” Fuji said.
But Djou thinks enforcing the laws against sitting and lying on sidewalks and moving forward with prosecutions could deter more people who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness from moving to Hawaii.
Djou said he’s open to further expanding the sit-lie ban, but thinks it might be better to focus on enforcement of existing laws and potentially clarifying the patchwork of ordinances on the books.
Caldwell said he plans to keep up the city’s enforcement of the stored property and sidewalk nuisance laws, beginning every night at 2 a.m. He said the city is looking to build a second enforcement team, and that he is also open to additional enforcement tools like regulations on shopping carts.
Caldwell is wary of further expanding the radius of the sit-lie ban, however. He said he wants to stick with what’s constitutional and not open up the city to additional lawsuits.
Carlisle said he would seek more prosecutions of homeless people, and said the possibility of expanding the sit-lie ban “sounds promising,” despite the potential for more lawsuits.
“I guess he’s afraid of the ACLU,” Carlisle said of Caldwell. “I don’t happen to be.”