As state officials prepare to close Kakaako parks to the public to clear out homeless campers, Honolulu City Council members are proposing their own new measures to expand areas where homeless people can’t stay.
Three bills were introduced this week to expand the list of Honolulu sidewalks where it’s illegal to sit or lie between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. — and one of the measures would apply the restriction to every public sidewalk on Oahu.
“It does not make sense to expand the sit-lie ban incrementally,” Councilman Ernie Martin, who introduced the bill to expand the sit-lie ban to all public sidewalks, wrote in an email. “To be effective, a total island-wide ban should be considered but not without an alternative for the population … like a safe zone.”
To see the sit-lie ban’s expanding coverage area, click on the icon at the top-left corner and select additional measures.
The City Council measures include:
The bills include exceptions allowing people to sit to watch a parade, and a baby sitting in a stroller wouldn’t be subject to the $1,000 fine or 30 days in jail that violators could face.
All the bills are scheduled for first readings at a City Council meeting Wednesday. Bills must be approved at three meetings and signed by the mayor before they become law.
The council adopted the original sit-lie ban in 2014 for the Waikiki Special District, and has since passed five more bills expanding the ban in areas around urban Honolulu, including two passed this year.
From 2015, when the city began enforcing its bans, to August 2017, the Honolulu Police Department has issued 26,905 warnings and 1,140 citations, and has made 28 arrests as a result of the city’s sit-lie bans, according to police spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
Another pending measure, introduced in July by Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, would amend the definition of camping in an attempt to strengthen an existing ban on camping along city-owned streambeds. In the past five years, Kobayashi said she’s received an increasing number of complaints about people camping along canals and streams.
City Council members and Mayor Kirk Caldwell have taken care to try avoid legal challenges since they began expanding the sit-lie ban two years ago.
In June, Caldwell vetoed a measure Kobayashi introduced that would have expanded the sit-lie ban along Makahiki Way, which borders the McCully-Moiliili Public Library.
While he said he supported her effort, Caldwell wrote in his veto that the bill, which would have enforced the ban along a sidewalk in a residential rather than a commercial or industrial area, would likely face legal challenges.
Her continued desire to rid the library of homeless people who loiter and camp just outside inspired Kobayashi to propose her new measure addressing areas around all libraries and schools.
“The children are afraid walking to the library,” she said.
While it didn’t involve the sit-lie bans, a federal class-action lawsuit in 2015 resulted in the city agreeing to not immediately dispose of any personal items during the enforcement of the stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.
Citywide sit-lie bans elsewhere, however, have lost legal battles.
In 2006, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals deemed a citywide ban in Los Angeles unconstitutional because it criminalized people for sitting, sleeping or lying on sidewalks in a city where there weren’t sufficient shelter beds for the homeless population.
Honolulu could face a similar legal battle if the council passes the islandwide sit-lie ban.
“They’re going to walk themselves right into a lawsuit if they pass that,” said Nickolas Kacprowski, an attorney at Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing. Kacprowski’s firm partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in the suit against Honolulu’s stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.
Kacprowski said he would consider bringing a case against an islandwide sit-lie ban.
Still, Martin wrote that his bill is an answer to a homelessness problem that he said has “taken possession of public areas to the detriment of the tax paying general public.”
He said an islandwide ban should only be considered if the city offers homeless people an alternative, “like safe zones.”
A safe zone, he said, is an area where homeless people could legally live and “get the appropriate level of services to transition into more suitable environments.”
“Endlessly shuffling the cityʻs poor from one area to the next actually prolongs homelessness …” — Matteo Caballero of the ACLU
Martin introduced a resolution Thursday urging the city to use $23 million in the city’s budget earmarked for a Community Revitalization Initiative to create safe zones.
He didn’t say whether he considered any of Oahu’s existing shelters to qualify as safe zones.
The Big Island has embarked on its own safe zone experiment, with mixed results so far.
Even without an islandwide ban, if the sidewalk space available to homeless people becomes small enough, the bans could be challenged in court, Kacprowski said.
Matteo Caballero of the ACLU argued that, aside from posing legal challenges, sit-lie bans exacerbate the state’s homeless crisis.
“Endlessly shuffling the cityʻs poor from one area to the next actually prolongs homelessness by forcing people in poverty to spend their limited resources replacing food, medicine, and shelter, rather than saving money for self-sufficiency and permanent housing,” he wrote in an email. “What’s needed is real governance and leadership — instead of trying to criminalize our way out of a housing crisis.”
Kobayashi’s bill to ban camping along city-owned streams might be redundant. Because of a 2015 bill, the Department of Facility Maintenance already enforces the anti-camping laws along city-owned streams, mostly through the stored property ordinance that allows city maintenance crew to collect certain items stored in public areas.
That enforcement is the reason Tracy Alapai didn’t have pants on as she walked in ankle-deep water in a canal under the H-1 freeway. She said she prefers living along the embankment to sidewalks or nearby Aala Park.
City and state officials visited the site three times in the last three days, she said, and at one point took some of her possessions.
“So now I’m half naked,” she said.
Alapai said that homeless people collect too much stuff, and she spends a lot of her time collecting trash that flows down the canal. She even agrees with the city’s ban on camping along waterways. She said that it’s unsafe for people who don’t understand how rain patterns affect the flow of water in the canal.
“We have floods here all the time,” she said.
The number of people living along city-owned streams has risen, Kobayashi said. But Ross Sasamura, the director of Department of Facility Management, said the number of complaints his department receives hasn’t gone up in recent years.
If she’s kicked her out of the encampment, Alapai said she’d come right back. For her, it’s the safest place she’s lived in 15 years of being homeless.
“This is not a safe place,” she said. “However, it is safer than Aala Park.”