Concerns about legal vulnerabilities led a Honolulu City Council committee to defer two of three bills to expand the city’s ban on sitting or lying on public sidewalks.

Councilman Ernie Martin introduced both measures that were deferred at Tuesday’s meeting of the Executive Affairs and Legal Matters Committee. The first bill would have extended the ban along all public sidewalks on Oahu. The second would have extended it along all sidewalks in front of businesses.

The committee also voted to gut and replace a resolution calling for safe zones where homeless people could legally pitch tents. Instead, Councilman Ron Menor, chair of the committee, said the city should create temporary villages of tiny homes.

Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor gestures during discussion of Bill 69.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor worried legal challenges to an islandwide sit-lie ban would jeopardize the city’s existing bans. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The perceived legal threat to an islandwide sit-lie ban stemmed in part from a 2006 case in which the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals struck down a citywide ban in Los Angeles because there weren’t enough shelter beds for the city’s homeless.

The January point-in-time count found about 4,959 homeless people on Oahu. City housing director Marc Alexander said at the meeting that Oahu’s shelter capacity is under 3,000 and 2,600 shelter beds are occupied.

The committee approved a third bill proposed by Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi that would prohibit sitting or lying down on public sidewalks within 800 feet of schools or public libraries from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. The full City Council will consider that measure in November, but Menor said it is a work in progress and will be amended. 

“This is the one bill that may be salvageable from a legal standpoint,” Menor said. “Let’s give it a shot and see what happens.”

An assistant superintendent for the Hawaii Department of Education and Stacy Kaneshige of the Hawaii Public Library System voiced support for the intent of the bill.

The resolution on safe zones, also introduced by Martin, envisioned city-sanctioned homeless encampments where people could “erect a tent without fear of eviction” and access “restroom facilities, social services, and security.”

But the committee members said they preferred shelters of tiny homes similar to Hale Mauliola, the Sand Island facility where shipping containers have been converted to housing units.

The Hale Mauliola transitional shelter on Sand Island. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Menor said he, Kobayashi and Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga visited sanctioned homeless villages in Seattle, and many of the encampments had small wooden houses.

“We all came away very impressed,” Menor said. “We need more of these kinds of shelters.”

Menor plans to introduce an amended resolution before the November council meeting.

In August, Big Island Mayor Harry Kim created Hawaii’s only safe zone, Camp Kikaha in Kona.

Eventually, Kim plans to establish a safe zone for up to 100 people on a 5-acre parcel just outside of Kona’s business district. Hawaii County officials are considering purchasing fiberglass domes to house people there.

Honolulu housing director Alexander said Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration opposes safe zones, but would consider the committee’s new proposal for shelters with modular homes.

He warned the committee that in other cities, the modular homes that are supposed to be a stepping stone to permanent housing often end up as permanent housing themselves.

Akua Campanella is a social worker for North Shore Mental Health but testified as an individual. She said she supports tiny homes for the homeless because affordable housing units aren’t available.

“I’ve had clients on a housing wait list for three years,” she said. “The reason why I support the little village is, what else is there?”

Hawaii County displayed a fiberglass dome near the site of a proposed safe zone this month. County of Hawaii

Oahu had a housing shortfall of 24,000 units as of 2016 and the highest need comes from people making less than 80 percent of the area median income, according to an audit published last month

An individual earning 80 percent AMI in Honolulu has an annual salary of $58,600, a family of four would make $83,700, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city issued an average of 2,080 building permits each year for the last five years and most of homes constructed on Oahu were only affordable for higher-income households, the audit said.

Alexander said affordable units are available. He noted that service providers create lists of property managers willing to accept homeless people as tenants. 

“We know we have units,” Alexander said. “We have an 8.6 percent rental vacancy rate.”

Councilman Brandon Elefante opposed both the resolution and all three sit-lie ban bills.

“What it comes down to is providing housing and resources,” he said.

Some state lawmakers have expressed interest in safe zones.

In the last legislative session lawmakers passed HB 83, which requires members of the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness to study the concept and create a report with recommendations, including state-owned land parcels that could be used for legal homeless encampments.

The group held a public meeting earlier this month and must submit its recommendations by January.

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