Honolulu’s prohibition against sitting or lying in certain areas is likely to be expanded in Iwilei after City Council members voted to advance a bill on Wednesday.

The measure covers parts of Dillingham Boulevard and streets around the Institute For Human Services’ shelters including Kaaahi Street, Kaaahi Place and Kaamahu Place.

IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell said the broadened restriction is necessary. She said unsheltered people in the area have become a health and safety threat to residents of her shelters. A 26-year-old man was stabbed in the area last month, she said, and some of her clients are tempted into illegal activity on the street nearby.

“We need to really encourage people to work to get off the street,” she said. “If we only maintain them on the street, it’s going to be problematic.”

Unsheltered homeless people are often ticketed for sit-lie and sidewalk obstruction violations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The council bill passed with the support of most council members. Councilman Brandon Elefante, who has long argued the policy criminalizes homelessness, voted no. Councilwoman Kym Pine voted yes with reservations.

If the council gives final approval and Mayor Kirk Caldwell doesn’t object, the expansion would add to a long list of places on Oahu where it’s already illegal to sit or lie on a public sidewalk. Caldwell first introduced the sit-lie ban in Waikiki in 2014 but it has since grown to areas including Chinatown, downtown, Kailua, Wahiawa, Waimanalo and Hawaii Kai.

More than five years later, the strategy has not resulted in a reduction of the island’s unsheltered homeless population. In fact, that population grew by 47% from 2014 to 2019, according to the annual point in time count.  In 2014, volunteers counted 1,633 unsheltered homeless people. As of last year, that number was 2,401. Another 2,000 people were counted in Oahu shelters.

Part of the rationale for the sit-lie ban is to push homeless people into shelters and then into transitional and permanent housing, and city officials say they’re doing that. The island has made notable gains when it comes to families and veterans experiencing homelessness. Over the course of last year, the city says 5,307 people were placed into permanent housing.

But for the hundreds of people on the streets of Honolulu, calls to enter a shelter are meaningless on an island that does not have enough space for them, said Wookie Kim, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

According to city data, the island’s shelters had a 96% occupancy rate in December 2019. The situation is especially dire now because shelters have reduced their capacities to allow for more social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts are also predicting a spike in homelessness as unemployment skyrockets and people find themselves unable to pay rent.

“To the extent that there is capacity, that’s because people are shuffling around in an endless game of musical chairs,” Kim said.

As for where a person can legally sleep outside, Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander has given only one answer: the city’s new Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage facility. As of last month, it had a capacity of 80.

Harassing and ticketing homeless people for sitting on the sidewalk – and then arresting them when they miss court dates – is not going to help them find housing, Kim said.

“With every expansion of the sit-lie ban, it becomes even harder to get back on your feet,” he said. “This perpetuates the cycle.”

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