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.

Critics, including Blangiardi the candidate, said the approach “simply moves our homeless around our communities.”

Blangiardi is now eight months in office, and advocates and homeless people say that sweeps are still occurring.

“Calling something by a different name doesn’t change what they’re doing, and that’s what’s problematic here,” said Wookie Kim, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

City workers assist in clearing homeless camp under a bridge located under the Kapiolani Boulevard / Manoa Palolo Drainage Canal. This area is located across Kaimuki High School.
City workers assist in clearing a homeless camp under a Kapiolani Boulevard bridge. Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration insists the actions are to promote sanitation, not homeless sweeps. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Anton Krucky, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing and Homelessness, said crews are not targeting homeless people but are engaging in “sanitation activities,” such as cleaning sidewalks and park management.

“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.

‘No Rest For the Wicked’

Every day, the city’s Department of Facility Maintenance website posts its enforcement schedule despite guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that discourage the practice of clearing encampments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi answers questions about Tier 4 at a press conference held at Honolulu Hale.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration says its approach to homelessness is different because it includes outreach workers to provide assistance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

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.

Ticketing Violations

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.

ACLU Executive Director Josh Wisch said sweeps are illegal and unconstitutional, citing a federal ruling that applies to Honolulu.

“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.”

Homeless people were disproportionately cited last year because of the city’s sit-lie law and Covid-19 restrictions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Honolulu has made it illegal to sit or lie down in 18 neighborhoods, to obstruct public sidewalks and to store belongings on public property. Last year, the City Council tried but failed to expand the sit-lie restrictions.

During the first eight months of last year – on top of Covid citations – people were ticketed more than 6,549 times for violating the sit-lie ban and for blocking sidewalks. And 9.1% of the more than 23,000 individuals who received at least one Covid-19 citation had a record of homeless-related violations in the last three years. Correction: an earlier version said it was 90% instead of 9.1%.

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.

Last week, the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s most recent Covid-related ban on evictions.

“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.

Last year, the Point In Time Count reported there were 4,448 homeless people statewide, with 53% living on the streets and 47% who had sought shelter.

“What we’ve heard from anecdotal reports and people on the ground is that yes, the number of people who are houseless and unsheltered has increased during the pandemic,” Wisch said.

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