The civil rights group wants the court to order the city to stop “targeted enforcement and harassment,” which it says is unconstitutional.

Five homeless people are suing the city over its homeless policies, which they say criminalize living on the streets.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the 1st Circuit Court on behalf of the five plaintiffs. It says the city is violating the constitution.

The lawsuit isn’t seeking money. It asks the court to put a stop to “targeted enforcement and harassment” against homeless people ― including sweeps, citations and arrests ― until the inventory of shelter beds and affordable housing units on Oahu grows to meet demand.

Shopping carts and tents located on Sumner Street near the Institute of Human Services.
The ACLU wants the court to stop “targeted enforcement” of city policies against homeless people, including sweeps, citations and arrests, until the inventory of shelter beds and affordable housing units on Oahu grows to meet demand. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The ACLU says there are 2,300 homeless people on Oahu but fewer than 50 vacancies in shelters. Given the lack of shelter space, the lawsuit alleges the city’s enforcement of laws that prohibit sleeping, sitting or lying in public spaces “constitutes cruel or unusual punishment” and violates homeless residents’ free movement and due process rights.

“People experiencing houselessness have the same fundamental rights under the U.S. and Hawaii Constitutions as those who are lucky enough to have housing and shelter, yet the day-to-day reality regarding the exercise of those rights is much different for our houseless neighbors,” ACLU’s legal director Wookie Kim said in a news release.

“Our plaintiffs and houseless neighbors are denied these fundamental rights, and other constitutional guarantees, far more flagrantly and far more often than housed people. The city is essentially penalizing houseless people for their very existence,” he added.

During a press conference, Kim said the group eventually plans to “seek class certification in this case.”

The city issued the following statement on the suit.

“We understand that a lawsuit has been filed and the Department of Corporation Counsel is reviewing the allegations and cannot comment at this time,” it said.

The lawsuit comes as the state grapples with a worsening housing crisis. The governor has issued an emergency proclamation aimed at streamlining processes and services to tackle the issue. At the same time, housing service providers are reporting little progress in addressing chronic homelessness, or those on the streets for a year or more.

One of the named plaintiffs in the suit, Jared Castro, called the regular city sweeps “stressful.”

“It makes me feel awful to be singled out by the city and its police officers all of the time. These are things that we go through on a regular basis, and I am sad to report that interactions like these are my normal,” said Castro, who has received 200 violations over the last three years for actions like failing to comply with park signage or sleeping on the sidewalk.

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