Three bills that would dramatically expand Honolulu’s ban on sitting or lying down on public sidewalks passed their first hurdle at a City Council meeting Wednesday, but not without criticism from testifiers who argued the measures criminalize people without homes.
Councilman Ernie Martin introduced two of the three bills. One of his measures would expand the sit-lie ban to all public sidewalks on Oahu.
The council adopted the first sit-lie ban in Waikiki in 2014. Since then it has passed various measures to expand the ban to include sidewalks in urban Honolulu, Wahiawa, Kailua and Kaneohe.
“For us to do it piecemeal would be a serious mistake,” Martin said. “It would force these populations into other areas.”
Martin, who represents the North Shore, said he has noticed an influx of homeless in his district as a result of the expansion of the sit-lie ban in urban Honolulu.
His second measure would expand the ban in front of businesses and along certain streets in Iwilei. Bill 83, introduced by Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, would expand the sit-lie ban around libraries and schools.
All the bills passed first reading on 7-1 votes. Councilman Brandon Elefante, who represents Aiea and Waipahu, voted against the measures. Councilman Joey Manahan was absent.
People who testified against the bills Wednesday argued that they criminalize homeless people who will end up in in court or in jail.
“The first step is really to steer away from criminalization practices,” said Beatriz Cantelmo of Amnesty International Hawaii Chapter, who testified against all three measures.
Expansions of the sit-lie ban shuffle homeless people around, opponents said, making it even more difficult for them to find housing.
“There is no one measure that’s going to address homelessness,” said Will Caron of Young Progressives Demanding Action. “But there are three in front of you right now that will make it worse.”
Sunny Ganaden, a lawyer who coauthored the “Native Hawaiian Justice Task Force Report,” also testified against the bill. Native Hawaiians are disproportionately represented in the state’s criminal justice system, Ganaden said, and sit-lie bans exacerbate the problem.
Councilman Kymberly Pine voted “yes” with reservations on Martin’s bills. She said the bans don’t solve the root causes of homelessness and that being forced to move causes people to become more anxious and in some cases violent.
Pine also warned about potential legal challenges that an islandwide ban might prompt.
The American Civil Liberties Union has long cautioned Honolulu lawmakers that making it illegal for homeless people to sit or lie down on public sidewalks infringes on their constitutional rights.
“You cant have a sit-lie ban that applies everywhere in the city if you don’t have enough shelter beds,” said Nickolas Kacprowski, an attorney at Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing. “You’re essentially making it a crime to be homeless.”
Kacprowski, along with the ACLU Hawaii, previously brought a suit against Honolulu’s stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances.
Martin said that even with the possibility of legal challenges, it’s worth discussing an islandwide ban.
“I’m sure as these measures move forward there will be legal concerns,” Martin said. “That shouldn’t prohibit us from having this discussion anyway.”
The bans are part of a method of addressing homelessness that Mayor Kirk Caldwell labeled “compassionate disruption.” The method is said to encourage homeless people to enter shelters, where they can find social services and ultimately permanent housing.
“There is a methodology and philosophy with compassionate disruption … that has worn very thin with the general public,” Martin said. “For us to pass any sit-lie measure without proposing some possible solutions to the bigger problem would be a mistake.”
The solution, Martin said, is creating safe zones.
A resolution Martin introduced to encourage the creation of safe zones describes them as places where homeless people can “erect a tent without fear of eviction” and where they can access “restroom facilities, social services, and security.”
Martin said other means of alleviating poverty, including raising the minimum wage, are out of the council’s hands.
David Cannall, who is disabled and lived for 10 years in his van with his wife and son, testified at the meeting. He liked the idea of safe zones but added that the city officials need to get serious about building affordable housing.
Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has created an experimental safe zone in Kona called Camp Kikaha, where up to 30 people can legally camp. Kim intends to create a larger safe zone in a field just outside of downtown Kona that would accommodate up to 100 people
Linda Vandervort manages Camp Kikaha. Vandervort said that among other things, the area gives people a place to get a good night’s rest, something that’s not easy to get if you’re living on the streets in constant danger of assault, theft or tickets from police.
But critics of safe zones abound.
“They’re very costly,” said Marc Alexander, the city’s director of housing. “They don’t deliver on results.”
Alexander pointed to the fact that Camp Kikaha costs more than $23,000 to run, or $766 per person each month if there are 30 people in the camp. That money would be better spent on options that offer permanent housing, including housing vouchers or Housing First programs, he said.
“Getting people into perm housing, that’s the result that matters,” Alexander said. “That’s the only way you reduce your homeless count. Not by moving people into shelters, not by moving people into safe zones.”