There are an estimated 2,400 unsheltered homeless people on Oahu, but usually only a few hundred vacant shelter beds.

In other words, there isn’t enough shelter space to house the unsheltered population.

But Honolulu will continue to “sweep” them out of parks and off sidewalks and enforce its sit-lie ban despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming it is unconstitutional to punish homeless people for sleeping in public if there aren’t enough shelter beds to accommodate them.

This decision doesn’t impact any of our practices here in Honolulu,” Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said. 

Mayor Caldwell Head of Honolulu Housing Office Marc Alexander during briefing on homeless solutions held at the Capitol.
Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said the case Martin v. City of Boise changes nothing about how the city responds to homelessness. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty filed a lawsuit against Boise, Idaho in 2009 arguing that its punishment of homeless people who have no other options amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The case resulted in a landmark ruling last year in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the western United States, Alaska and Hawaii. On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of that ruling, which lets the lower court’s decision stand.

“Based on the Supreme Court decision, the mayor should immediately call a halt to his policy of sweeps and everyone should triple their efforts to build tiny housing communities and find people homes,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, who has advocated for kauhale, or village-style, solutions to homelessness.

Sen Lt Gov Candidate Josh Green Democratic Party Convention Waikaloa Resort. Kona, Hawaii.
Lt. Gov. Josh Green said Honolulu should refocus its efforts from “sweeps” to building tiny homes for homeless people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But according to Alexander, the court opinion doesn’t apply to Honolulu because city officials crack down on homeless camps neighborhood by neighborhood, not the whole island at once.

Of course we know there aren’t enough shelter beds for all 2,400 unsheltered persons at one time,” Alexander said. “When we do an enforcement, it’s always a targeted area … We make sure we have shelter spaces and services available for people.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii is skeptical. By continuing the status quo, the city is taking a legal risk and even inviting lawsuits, said Mateo Caballero, the ACLU’s legal director. 

They’re playing with fire,” he said. 

Before clearing out a homeless encampment, Caballero said police need to ensure that shelter space is available nearby and that there aren’t any barriers in the way of a client actually taking the bed. If police deliver a homeless person to a shelter, but that person can’t accept an “available” bed because they’ve already exceeded the stay limit at that shelter, that person’s rights were violated, Caballero said.

“I really hope the city would instead use this as a time to pause and consider whether any of this is working,” he said. “And I think the data speaks for itself.”

Is ‘Compassionate Disruption’ Working?

The rate of unsheltered homeless people has been climbing for years, according to the annual Point In Time Count Report. This year, the percentage of homeless people who were unsheltered exceeded the percentage who were sheltered for the first time, 54% versus 46%. Many of the unsheltered people are based in the downtown/Kakaako area and the Waianae coast, the report said.

Meanwhile, the city continues to pass laws that criminalize homelessness, which many experts say are counterproductive. Criminal citations can negatively impact employment and eligibility for housing programs and other benefits, and unpaid fines can prevent an individual from obtaining a driver’s license they need to go to work, according to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

ACLU Hawaii’s Legal Director Mateo Caballero said Honolulu’s current practices are unconstitutional and ineffective. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“The city’s war on the homeless is not working,” Caballero said. “It feels like what we’re doing is wasting resources harassing people instead of using that energy building affordable housing.” 

Alexander said Honolulu is doing everything it can to get people off the street. It’s all part of what Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption.”

“We have to enforce the law, and that’s what we’re doing,” Alexander said. “The law says public parks and spaces should be available to the public.” 

The city just launched a program called HONU, or Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons. When police officers spot homeless people violating a city ordinance, they will give the person the option of arrest or transportation to HONU’s tent facility in Waipahu. The program provides short-term shelter, space for pets and limited belongings, laundry and referrals to other services.

Meanwhile, Alexander said the city is working on creating more affordable housing like Kumu Wai, a new development that will serve 29 low-income seniors.

“Our focus is on helping people, not hiding them,” Alexander said.

Connie Mitchell, the executive director of the Institute for Human Services, said people who want shelter can usually get it. Before camps are “swept” by police, service providers typically visit the area multiple times offering assistance, Mitchell said, and many people decline.

“We’re offering everything necessary to help people,” Mitchell said. “It comes down to whether they want the help or not.”

Caballero said there are many reasons a person may refuse shelter including that the shelter is located too far from their workplace, prohibits pets, limits the storage of personal belongings, requires the separation of families, mandates sobriety and drug testing or charges fees the client can’t afford.

Green, who co-founded a nonprofit called H4 that assists homeless people in Chinatown, said the court ruling should be a wakeup call to the city. 

“This should make it clear that the approach must be to get people into houses, not focus on sweeps,” he said. “Hopefully it will light a fire under those trying to build tiny houses instead of this fake compassionate disruption.”

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