- Special Projects
It’s getting harder to be homeless in Honolulu.
While it’s not illegal to be homeless, and government can’t force a homeless person into a shelter, hospital or treatment facility, Honolulu’s stored property ordinance and sidewalk nuisance ordinance give the city the power to remove property in public places that causes safety hazards.
The Honolulu Police Department can issue citations when officers witness people urinating or defecating in public, or have a witness.
And, while beaches, parks and bus stops are also open to all, including the homeless, sitting and lying down on public sidewalks is prohibited in more than a dozen commercial or industrial zones from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. They include Waikiki, Chinatown, Iwilei, Kapalama, Ala Moana, Aina Haina-Hawaii Kai, Wahiawa and Waimanalo.
It is also illegal to lie down at certain bus stops while city buses are running. And many parks have closure hours.
If Mayor Kirk Caldwell has his way, new laws would do two additional things to curb the homeless: clear sidewalks all over Oahu of homeless people and their belongings, and make it illegal to “lodge” on a sidewalk after a police officer offers a shelter bed and a ride to the shelter.
No one is happy about the proliferation of homeless on our streets and in our parks. But this is criminalizing homelessness, and civil libertarians have correctly raised concerns about denial of rights.
Fortunately, the city’s approach to the homeless also includes more positive trends. Two recent developments come from the very same law enforcement agencies tasked with cracking down on homeless people.
The first is a “lift zone” proposal for city parks that comes from the Honolulu Police Department. Recognizing the need for more shelter, HPD is seeking to encourage city leaders to “lift” overnight camping rules in parks so that the homeless can sleep in inflatable, reusable tents.
Key to the plan is that it would be temporary, and that it be coordinated with health and social services. The police see it as something to rely on when there are no shelter beds available, something that varies from night to night.
The tents would remain in place for no longer than three months before being set up elsewhere. And homeless people who elect to stay in the tents would be moved into homeless shelters when space is available.
The second development regarding the homeless comes from HPD and city prosecutors. It involves placing more nonviolent offenders into social service programs rather than jails.
Key to the diversion plan is identifying crimes that are victimless, like the sit-lie ban, or possessing marijuana or drinking in public. The diversion plan builds off another collaboration between police and social workers to offer services and transportation to homeless people, called HELP Honolulu (it stands for Health, Efficiency, Long-term Partnerships).
No single program is a panacea. The best solution to reduce the homeless population, experts agree, is permanent, affordable housing. HPD recognizes that as well.
But the recent plans from local law enforcement represent innovative approaches to one of Honolulu’s most vexing challenges. We applaud HPD, city prosecutors and leaders for being open to trying new approaches that may yield tangible results.
The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell and Landess Kearns. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.