On the campaign trail, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi promised to end homeless sweeps, saying the tactic known as “compassionate disruption” failed to address the root causes of the problem.
The sweeps – which were conducted by the Honolulu Police Department and city clean-up teams – were a common fixture of former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s two terms in office. They targeted the many homeless encampments on Oahu, enforced park closure laws and forced people into shelters.
“Our administration does not see this as a homeless strategy, but rather as disposal of the debris, trash, and bulky items left on the sidewalks, streets, and parks,” he said in an email. “Unfortunately, that means those who are unsheltered may be affected by the efforts.”
He said a key difference under Blangiardi is that the teams that go to the encampments are accompanied by outreach providers offering care and services for homeless people who may be uprooted.
On a recent Tuesday morning, teams arriving in three police cars, a garbage truck and a pickup truck cleared a homeless camp under a Kapiolani Boulevard bridge in the Palolo Stream area. They hauled tables, chairs and other materials into the trucks.
The city crews returned to the same spot two days later to finish the job.
Homeless people and advocates say one of the biggest problems with the sweeps is that they often lose personal items and documents including birth certificates, social security cards or IDs.
“Calling something by a different name doesn’t change what they’re doing, and that’s what’s problematic here.” — Wookie Kim of Hawaii’s ACLU
Jessie Jo, who said she has been living on and off the streets since 2009, doesn’t bother keeping much anymore because she has lost so many items, including her wallet.
“No rest for the wicked,” she said. “They’re just going to make you as miserable as they possibly can and force you into a shelter situation, which isn’t always the best situation. It will make you sick and tired of having to do this and having to start all over.”
Krucky says the Blangiardi administration adheres to stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances by allowing people 30 minutes to gather their items.
“Most individuals are also notified the day before the cleaning occurs,” Krucky said. “The city provides individuals a tag to claim their belongings for up to 45 days.”
He added that his office also is supporting less intrusive programs to help homeless people.
These include the Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons program, which provides mobile units that may stay in place for up to 90 days to provide short-term shelter and assist in transitioning to other facilities. And the Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement program, which is aimed at providing on-site services for people living on the street with medical or mental health issues, will begin sometime in the fall.
“We believe in finding and maintaining programs that allow a person to thrive and find a sense of belonging, and that strengthen our community as a whole,” Krucky said.
Homeless advocates have long voiced their concerns that sweeps are disruptive and further traumatize Honolulu’s most vulnerable people.
Many homeless people refuse to go to a shelter due to crowded conditions and fears of contracting Covid-19.
For example, though the Keauhou Shelter in Moiliili has 69 units available to shelter 76 people, its occupancy rate is 97%, according to Mary Beth Lohman, director of Marketing and Development at Waikiki Health.
“The sweeps are expensive, using money that could be better spent actually helping people rather than harassing them,” Wisch said. “And the sweeps are inhumane. The mayor has the power to end them, and he should.”
HPD continues to ticket homeless people for violating city ordinances. So far this year, 1,729 tickets have been issued for violations of the sit-lie law alone, according to data provided by the state Judiciary.
Fear Of Increasing Homelessness
Advocates, meanwhile, fear that tenants who’ve fallen behind on their rent may be booted from their homes, which would add to the increasing homelessness.
“We could double the number of people and families who are houseless and experiencing these sweeps before January 2022,” said Jack Slater, a member of the Honolulu Tenants Union. He estimated that as many as 20,000 households are behind on rent statewide.
No official statistics on the number of unsheltered individuals in the state are available.
The Point in Time Count, a single-day event that allows outreach workers to measure the status of unsheltered individuals in the state, was unable to send workers on the streets this year due to Covid-19. But the survey found that 1,185 people were in emergency shelters, 640 in transitional housing and 28 in a safe haven.