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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled plans Thursday to introduce legislation that could be used to force homeless people and their belongings off public property.
The administration plans to introduce two bills drafted by city attorneys: one targeting the belongings of homeless people by outlawing sidewalk obstructions from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and another to prevent people from “lodging” on public property if shelter facilities are available.
“Lodging” is defined as occupying a place temporarily, sleeping or resting, and refusing to leave the area. According to the draft, officers would arrange transportation to a nearby shelter if the person is willing. If the person refuses shelter and refuses to leave within an hour, they could be arrested and charged with a petty misdemeanor.
“You don’t get a pass because you’re homeless,” Caldwell said. “This is the tough love part.”
City laws already prohibit people from keeping personal property on public property for more than 24 hours or in a park after-hours.
The current sit-lie ban only affects Waikiki and other business areas around the island during business hours, he said. The proposed new ban “would apply no matter what time and it would prohibit any form of sitting and lying in any form of sidewalk anywhere around the island,” he said.
Caldwell said he anticipates the public lodging bill to generate opposition and possibly a legal challenge. He noted that the bill still must go through the City Council and public hearings process.
He announced the proposed legislation at a press conference in a city-owned Kakaako lot, across the street from a small homeless encampment that he gestured toward at one point.
Violators of the second proposed bill to expand the prohibition on keeping possessions on public sidewalks could receive a $100 fine or have to do community service. A person could be cited if their property leaves less than 36 inches of sidewalk space for pedestrians, and they refuse to comply with a warning.
The mayor first mentioned his support for an islandwide sit-lie ban in his April State of the City address. Sidewalk sit-lie bans have been expanded by the City Council since the first was instituted in Waikiki in 2014.
The most recent homeless count found that 4,495 homeless people lived on Oahu, a 9 percent decline from 2017’s count.
The city doesn’t have enough beds to house all of those people, Caldwell said, but it does have enough room to house the most visible “chronic” homeless people in Oahu’s urban core. Homeless encampments that don’t pose a threat to public safety or health, like the Waianae Boat Harbor, won’t be targeted, he said.
“It breaks my heart,” Caldwell said, to see seniors, children and others who can’t use public sidewalks blocked by the property of homeless campers.
Those campers show “total disrespect for our aina” by discarding trash that city workers have to clean up, he said.
If the city stopped enforcing its homelessness policies, Honolulu might “look like what Paris looked like during the 1968 garbage strikes where there’s garbage piled 6 feet, 8 feet high” within a month, Caldwell said.
Parks aren’t made to house homeless campers, Caldwell said. Their presence discourages visitors and leads to dead plants. He pointed specifically to Paawa Inha Park and Stadium Park, two places that homeless campers frequent.
“Will you go in there with your family? Will you allow your kids to go in there and play on the playground equipment?” he asked.
Caldwell added that homeless people who object to visiting a shelter don’t want to deal with rules and regulations.
The goal of the proposed bills, he said, was to get people to decide they want to stop destroying or negatively impacting public property and move to shelters to get back on their feet.
“I’m hoping they will elect to move into shelter,” instead of being arrested, Caldwell said.
Last year City Councilman Ernie Martin introduced a bill to create an islandwide sit-lie ban from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. It died two weeks later in the council Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee after council members went behind closed doors to discuss the bill with city lawyers. Councilman Ron Menor, committee chair, cited concerns about its legality.
Attorneys who have previously sued the city over its homelessness policies are considering challenging the city if Caldwell’s plan goes into effect.
“That’s always something that we’ve strongly thought we would do,” Nick Kacprowski, an attorney at Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing, said Thursday. “I can’t say we’re 100 percent certain … but it’s certainly something that we’re very likely to do and look into.”
He took issue with the mayor’s press conference comment that he would not enforce such a law in encampments like the Waianae Boat Harbor.
The working homeless need to live in the city to get themselves out of homelessness, Kacprowski said.
“What happens if they work in Waikiki?” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Kacprowski’s law firm sued the city in 2015 over its stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances. The two statutes allow the city to remove property left on sidewalks either after giving a 24-hour notice or immediately if the items are deemed nuisances.
The suit was filed by 15 people who were homeless or had been homeless.
Caldwell’s statements at the press conference reminded Kacprowski of the situation when his firm and the ACLU sued the city.
Attorneys argued the city infringed on the constitutional rights of their clients and didn’t enforce the law correctly. The city should have waited 30 days to dispose of property taken from homeless individuals, but destroyed it soon after, they said.
The city ultimately agreed to not immediately dispose of personal items.
Caldwell’s bills don’t offer enough protections to pass constitutional muster, Kacprowski said.
“It is deja vu, and the last lawsuit the city lost and they had to pay over half a million dollars … and it didn’t help the homeless problem,” he said. “And here we are again.”
Taking the sit-lie ban islandwide would constitute a significant expansion, said Josh Wisch, executive director of ACLU Hawaii.
Wisch rejected Caldwell’s claim that the city has enough housing to shelter homeless people in Oahu’s urban core. Some shelters have time limitations, don’t accept families and charge fees.
The proposal could also threaten window shoppers or sign-wavers campaigning on the side of the road, he said.
“I believe the city has used terms like pedestrian safety bills before, but at the end of the day, it’s criminalizing someone for their status of being unsheltered,” Wisch said.
Read the proposed bills below: