We’ve been producing journalism in the public interest for 10 years, with the aim of making Hawaii a better place, and we have no plans to stop any time soon. But we need your help to keep this critical work going strong. For a limited time, donations to Civil Beat will be doubled, thanks to a matching gift from the NewsMatch program!
Civil Beat has raised $44,000 towards our $200,000 goal!
In Honolulu, being homeless is already a crime in many ways.
It’s illegal to sit or lie down in Waikiki and parts of 17 other neighborhoods. It is also against the law to obstruct a public sidewalk or store belongings on public property. And that’s not even taking into account anti-vagrancy laws at the state level.
But for City Council Chair Ann Kobayashi, the existing laws don’t go far enough. She introduced a measure last month, Bill 73, that would criminalize sitting or lying on a public sidewalk within 800 feet of a park or school from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Civil Beat plotted the property parcels of Oahu’s schools and parks on a map and circled them with an 800-foot perimeter to illustrate the impact of Kobayashi’s bill. It shows that the ban would be a massive escalation of existing sit-lie laws, making large swaths of the island off-limits to homeless people looking to rest.
Zoom in on different neighborhoods on the map to see the impact.
The proposal is already raising concerns among housing advocates and homeless service providers.
Many people are under the false impression that when the police enforce vagrancy laws, homeless people are taken somewhere that will meet their needs, said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, a nonprofit homeless advocacy coalition. But that’s often not the case.
“For a lot of folks, they will move out of an area and move right back in, or to other places they haven’t been, like a residential area,” she said. “That is a distinct possibility.”
She proposed the latest bill with Crane Park and neighboring Kaimuki High School in mind, she said. Grandparents are afraid to take children to the park, she said, and Little League has been out of the question for years.
“The people right across the street are just getting so depressed because every day they walk out of the house and have to look at all the homeless and they can’t even use the sidewalk, or the park,” Kobayashi said. “No one plays there anymore.”
But new laws and enforcement don’t make homeless people disappear. For unsheltered people, laws like these mean citations from police, missed court dates that turn into warrants and jail time, said Richard Hoex, a 43-year-old homeless man who has staked out a spot on Kapiolani Boulevard.
“They’re not going to vanish,” Hoex said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good.”
The bill was introduced despite federal guidance that says to leave homeless encampments where they are, unless individual housing units are available, to help control COVID-19.
“Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. “This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
The bill also comes at a time when housing experts are expecting a wave of newly homeless people as thousands of Hawaii residents remain unemployed and unable to pay their rent and bills.
Kobayashi acknowledges her legislation is not a real solution to homelessness.
“It’s hard because, where do we put everyone?” she said. “That’s why we need more housing. Of course, housing is the solution, but it’s an expensive solution. But we have to keep trying.”
Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander wouldn’t say where the city administration stands on Bill 73. While housing is the answer, he said the government has an obligation to “balance the rights of all people.”
“People still have a right to traverse sidewalks,” he said. “People still have a right to access public parks and public spaces.”
Honolulu has had sit-lie bans since 2014. They started in Waikiki and then lawmakers and Mayor Kirk Caldwell expanded it to more than a dozen other neighborhoods.
For several years, the island’s homelessness increased and Hawaii earned the distinction of having the worst per capita homelessness rate in the nation. In particular, the number of unsheltered homeless people counted on the street and other areas unfit for human habitation increased by nearly 700 from 2014 to 2017, according to annual homeless survey data.
The total homeless count on Oahu has decreased slightly since a peak of 4,959 in 2017. It now stands at 4,448 people – 2,102 in shelters, and 2,346 unsheltered. The state is now ranked No. 2 in the nation, behind New York. But Oahu’s total is still higher than it was a decade ago.
“Those numbers should tell us that more of the same is not going to work,” said James Koshiba, a homeless advocate with the nonprofit Hui Aloha.
The city’s laws are also legally dubious, according to Wookie Kim, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. Sit-lie bans target homeless people specifically, whereas a hiker sitting down after a workout in a banned zone probably wouldn’t be cited, he said. That disparate treatment violates the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment, according to Kim.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court also affirmed a lower court opinion that ruled it is unconstitutional to punish homeless people for sleeping in public if there aren’t enough shelter beds to accommodate them. Despite a lack of shelter beds and housing units for Oahu’s homeless population, Honolulu’s stance is that the ruling doesn’t prohibit continued homeless sweeps and sit-lie enforcement on a piecemeal basis.
Constitutional concerns like that could be one reason Honolulu hasn’t enforced an anti-lodging law passed by the City Council and signed by Caldwell in 2018. That law made it illegal to “to sleep; to come to rest and refuse to vacate” any public place, at any time.
HPD has not been enforcing it, according to police spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
“The last that we heard was that it was going to be reviewed and possibly amended,” she said by email.
Civil Beat requested an interview with HPD about its sit-lie enforcement on Friday. On Monday afternoon, Yu said no one was available, and later added that HPD hasn’t taken a position on Bill 73.
These kinds of laws are not tolerated by the public when it’s those with political power who are being cited, Kim said.
In recent weeks, middle and upper-class residents have received criminal citations for the first time for seemingly innocuous behavior like walking alone in a park – a citation previously handed out only to homeless people. It was part of an unprecedented ticketing spree by HPD as it endeavored to enforce Caldwell’s pandemic rules. Even the U.S. Surgeon General was criminally charged for violating the mayor’s order.
Facing a wave of criticism that Caldwell’s rules were ill-conceived and excessively harsh, the mayor walked back the restrictions and HPD reverted to issuing more warnings than citations.
“And yet, we allow other really, really vague laws that prohibit seemingly innocent conduct to be selectively enforced,” Kim said. “It’s only because, right now, this emergency order enforcement scheme has been impacting middle-class lives that there is a huge backlash against it. But people who are houseless don’t have that political power to push back.”
There is no companion legislation to Bill 73 to increase funding for homeless resources and housing. And Honolulu’s funding for housing and homelessness stayed stagnant this year. It’s a third of 1% in the $3 billion operating budget. Human services are 0.8% of the nearly $1.3 billion capital budget.
Kobayashi noted however that council members do regularly consider affordable housing legislation.
“We have to keep working on that and make sure it’s affordable for the real low income,” Kobayashi said.
A 2017 analysis of Oahu’s demand for permanent supportive housing – that’s housing combined with social services – showed that the island could provide a home for all 1,800 people who needed that level of help for only $27.8 million per year for the first 10 years.
That’s less than 1% of the city budget.
After 10 years, it would be $38 million a year, according to the report by the Corporation for Supportive Housing. That’s 1.3% of the city budget to address a problem that is consistently ranked among residents’ greatest concerns.
A separate analysis by the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice estimated it would be more expensive: $76.6 million every year for 10 years. That represents approximately 2% of the city’s operating budget.
“It is a relative drop in the bucket compared to all the other cumulative costs of maintaining this criminal legal apparatus,” Kim said.
Statewide permanent supportive housing would save $2.2 billion over 10 years, according to Appleseed.
The status quo means taxpayers are footing the bill for police enforcement, incarceration and the impacts transient people have on neighborhoods and businesses. Then there’s the cost of emergency room bills, which taxpayers cover if the person is on Medicaid. Daily sweeping of homeless encampments also requires resources from the Department of Facilities Maintenance, which disposed of 864 tons of trash in fiscal year 2019, according to the city budget book.
“All of that, for what?” Kim said. “You’re just cycling the same people in and out of the courts and the jails, and doing nothing to actually address the underlying problems.”
During the pandemic alone, it has cost over $1.6 million in federal CARES money for the Honolulu Police Department to run the POST program, a tent city where homeless people can isolate and be directed to other services, according to a breakdown shared with the City Council.
“We need permanent places where people can be safe, stage their healing and recovery and build or rebuild their lives,” Koshiba said. “Temporary space is not going to cut it.”
The Appleseed and CSH reports worked off an expected need of 1,700 or 1,800 permanent supportive housing clients, respectively.
Honolulu currently offers only 375 Housing First vouchers, homeless people’s ticket to permanent supportive housing. Hawaii funds only 102 for Oahu, according to Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness – and those could be on the chopping block as the state grapples with a pandemic-related budgetary crisis. The state’s $10.8 million general fund budget for homeless services is not in the “base budget,” Morishige said. Department heads have to make the case for continued funding every year.
Alexander, the city’s housing director, said it’s not as simple as throwing money at the problem.
“We’re trying to be very fiscally responsible,” he said. “It’s not a matter of just saying: Hey, let’s bring on $60 million worth of the vouchers if you don’t have the support network in place, if you don’t have a sustainable financial business model, and if you don’t have proper alignment with all the other federal and state resources.”
Officials are “gradually adjusting the system” so that providers can handle more Housing First clients, according to Alexander. Right now, providers’ bandwidth is being “stretched,” he said.
Alexander emphasized that the Caldwell administration has made “unprecedented investments” in homeless services and housing options.
In 2019, the Oahu system moved 5,307 people into permanent housing, an average of 442 clients per month, according to the city’s performance dashboard. The island has had particular success in reducing the population of homeless veterans and homeless families, down 24% and 48% respectively since 2015, according to the latest Point In Time count.
During Caldwell’s tenure, the city has acquired, completed or initiated the development of 1,328 housing units for a total of 2,508. And Honolulu is exploring options for project-based housing vouchers, for which the city would contract with landlords to provide housing to low-income households.
The pandemic has also forced homeless services systems to speed up their work, Thielen said. It has resulted in people getting housed more quickly.
“We’ve made possible what was not supposedly possible in the past,” she said.
Even still, hundreds remain unsheltered, and the city continues daily sweeps of homeless encampments, which Caldwell refers to as “compassionate disruption.” And the same homeless people get citation after citation.
Koshiba believes part of the reason the city has focused on criminalization is political pressure. He said he sees rage from neighbors and business owners expressed toward homeless people at neighborhood board meetings. Those people call city and state officials and implore them to take immediate action, even if the response is counterproductive to long-term solutions, Koshiba said.
“Ultimately the mayor and Marc (Alexander) are accountable for the city’s actions, but they’re getting this vicious drumbeat,” he said.
And when long term solutions are proposed, they often get shot down. A supportive housing project the city wanted to open in Hauula was halted before it even began this month after neighbors expressed outrage on social media, falsely referring to the project as a “halfway house.”
In general, Kim said neighbors’ concerns are legitimate, but criminalization just makes matters worse for everyone.
“We want safe and clean and strong communities,” he said. “But using handcuffs and destroying property and trampling over rights because of the fact that someone doesn’t have a home to retreat to, that is not OK. That is what we oppose.”
For the past several months our nonprofit newsroom has worked beyond our normal capacity to provide accurate information, push for accountability, amplify smart ideas and new voices, and double down on facts and context to write deeply reported local stories.
The truth is, our evolution as a public service news organization over the past 10 years has prepared us for this moment in time, when what we do matters the most.
Reader support keeps our small newsroom afloat. If you value the work of our journalists, please consider making a tax-deductible gift.