A handful of formerly homeless people testified Wednesday against two proposals from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to rid sidewalks of homeless people and their possessions throughout Oahu.
“Arresting people for being homeless, that’s nuts,” said Tracy Martin, who said he spent three years living on the streets in Kakaako with his wife and daughter. ”When we were first homeless, we thought no problem, six months we’ll be back on our feet again. The sweeps made it so hard for us.”
Martin and others argued city resources would be better spent on programs that help homeless people receive treatment for mental illness or substance abuse.
Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who chairs the council’s public works committee, suggested amending Caldwell’s proposals so neither can take effect until the administration comes up with plans to quickly create homeless services and housing in each of Oahu’s nine council districts — plans requiring council approval.
The Caldwell administration also proposed amendments to simplify both measures. The committee recessed until Thursday afternoon so Fukunaga can draft versions of the bills that incorporate all of the changes.
The first measure, Bill 51, would allow police to cite or arrest people if their possessions block sidewalk access from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and they refuse to remove their property after a warning. Conviction could lead to a fine of up to $100 or community service.
The administration hopes the law will clear sidewalks of tents and shopping carts – as well as other obstructions unrelated to homelessness such as kiosks and food stands, according to Andrew Pereira, a spokesman for the mayor.
City officials emphasized getting kiosks off Waikiki streets, which they say clutter the district’s main drag and hurt business for storefronts. The bill would also crack down on homebuilders who leave construction equipment on sidewalks without a permit, Department of Facility Maintenance Director Ross Sasamura said.
“It is about safe passage,” said Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents Waikiki. “To me it is not about homeless people, it is not about that, and I want to make that very clear, it is about allowing everybody to have equal access.”
Homeless advocates stressed the harmful effects they say the bills would have on poor people.
The city already prohibits people from keeping their possessions on public property for more than 24 hours or in a park after hours under the stored property and sidewalks nuisance ordinances. City crews can “sweep” anything left out in public that violates the laws.
“These raids are vicious, they are really hurting people on the street,” said David Muliner, who was homeless for seven years. “We need housing, we need services, we don’t need more laws making it illegal for people to be poor.”
Why are bills about homelessness before the City Council Public Works, Infrastructure and Sustainability Committee?
It is Council Chair Ernie Martin’s prerogative to choose which committee to refer bills to, and this committee is chaired by one of his allies, Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga.
Most bills require three hearings before the full City Council and two before a committee.
Local courts have been so clogged with people fined for activity related to being homeless, including being in parks after hours, that a separate court was created to deal with them. Martin said he was fined $100 for being in Ala Moana Regional Park after hours when he was homeless two years ago. He said he went to court five times to fight the ticket he couldn’t afford to pay.
The mayor’s second proposal, Bill 52, would make it illegal for anyone to “lodge” on a sidewalk. “Lodging” is defined as occupying a place temporarily, sleeping or resting, and refusing to leave within an hour of being confronted by police.
Police could only issue a citation or make an arrest under this proposal if they verify there is a nearby shelter with space to take someone in. Law enforcement would also need to offer the person a ride to the shelter.
“I can’t believe that any police officer would have that kind of time on his hands unless the person is a menace to society, in which case they should be arrested on other grounds,” said Steve Richey, another formerly homeless man who testified against the measure.
Outreach workers strive daily to build trust with homeless people and get them off the street. Caldwell’s bill adds a stick to the carrot approach, aligning with his “compassionate disruption” strategy for addressing the island’s homeless crisis.
The mayor finds the approach “far more humane (than) allowing those without a home, in many cases suffering from addiction and mental illness, to live in squalor, which affects their health and safety and that of the public at large,” he wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to the Council.
Under the so-called “sit-lie ban,” Honolulu already prohibits people from lying or sitting on certain sidewalks in Waikiki and in other commercial areas during business hours.
A 2017 survey commissioned by the city found 75 percent of residents who responded considered it essential or very important for the city to expand the authority and enforcement of the city’s existing sit-lie ban. The National Research Center and the International City/ County Management Association jointly conducted the survey.
The most recent homeless count, conducted in January, found that 4,495 homeless people lived on Oahu. About 42 percent of them were unsheltered, meaning they lived outside of emergency or transitional homeless shelters.
Oahu’s homeless population decreased by 464 people from 2017 to 2018, according to the annual homeless point in time count. But the data also showed more homeless people were living unsheltered as opposed to within transitional or emergency shelters. Just 35 percent of the island’s total homeless population lived outside in 2014 compared to 48 percent this year.
Bill 52 puts the onus on the city to ensure shelter beds are available, said Marc Alexander, the city’s director of housing. The city identified 20 available shelter beds Tuesday, though it is more typical to have 50 to 60 beds available, he said.
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