HONOLULU—About 20 houseless people, advocates, and Occupy Honolulu supporters turned up to voice their opposition to City Council Bill 54 at Honolulu Hale on Wednesday, December 7. In stark contrast to the good cheer and holiday spirit of the Christmas ornaments on display there, the mood in the Council chamber was decidedly serious as Bill 54 passed its third reading in an 8-to-1 vote.
The vote followed nearly five hours of impassioned testimony both in favor of and in opposition to the measure, which has become a lightning rod for “homeless” issues and a rallying cry for Occupiers.
Councilmember Tulsi Gabbard-Tamayo, who introduced the bill, said that the bill is not about the “homeless,” but rather about protecting the right of the public to have free, unfettered access to public facilities and property.
The measure allows for the City to remove personal property stored on public property. And while the bill passed with only one dissenting vote by Councilmember Romy Cachola, its future remains uncertain due to the various ambiguities within the measure regarding enforcement, the storage of confiscated property, and the cost of the programs needed for implementation.
The bill now goes to Mayor Peter Carlisle, who supported the measure, for signing. Enforcement of the measure is to be handled by the Department of Facility Maintenance for items left on sidewalks and the Department of Parks and Recreation for items left in parks.
Ambiguities regarding the bill are not limited to its implementation. Some of those who support the measure, including Gabbard-Tamayo, acknowledged that it does not address the “homeless” problem in Honolulu. However the State’s Homeless Task Force’s Mark Alexander supported the measure, saying that the bill would encourage the houseless people affected by it to seek the outreach services available to them. He cited encouraging statistics about Honolulu’s “homeless” population, but noted that hard data collected is subject to interpretation.
Councilmember Nestor Garcia said he had originally opposed the bill, but reconsidered because it was a way for him to actually “do something” about “homelessness” rather merely than follow “platitudes” put forth by opponents to the bill.
At one point in the proceedings, Cachola called attempts to disguise the measure as an effort to assist the homeless as “shibai” and needled Alexander about the amount of money the State spends on “homeless” issues.
The lone dissenting vote, Cachola, said the bill targets houseless people. He also expressed concern over the cost of enforcement, which involves a process that has yet to be determined. Cachola said that recent sweeps of City parks have treated houseless people as a “rat infestation.”
A majority of the public testimony on the bill, both written and verbal, opposed its passage. A strong argument was made by several testifiers, who said the bill infringed on First and Fourth Amendment rights. The Councilmembers said they had been assured by Corporation Counsel that the bill is constitutionally sound.
An Occupy Honolulu representative said that signs, banners, tents, and other structures erected at protests fall under free speech and would be therefore protected from removal.
Other opponents of the measure provided emotional testimony, calling the bill “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Retired Colonel Donald Hargarten said: “What are we doing? We’re criminalizing being ‘homeless.’”
Bill 54, however, imposes no criminal penalties for offenders.
Another testifier said that in 2009, Corporation Counsel advised against a similar measure on constitutional grounds. She also testified that similar measures have failed in a variety of other U.S. cities with significant “homeless” problems, and that Bill 54’s passage could result in a significant cost to the City in legal fees brought on by challenges to the law.
Some of those who testified, whether for or against, used the Pearl Harbor Day commemoration to highlight the plight of “homeless” veterans, the largest segment of the “homeless” population in Hawaii. Also noted by several testifiers on both sides of the issue was the legacy of recently passed University of Hawaii law professor Jon Van Dyke, an effective and revered advocate for human rights.
The Hawaiian Law of the Splintered Paddle, or Kanawai Mamalahoe, was invoked by several opponents of the measure. The law says to “Let every elderly person, woman, and child lie by the roadside in safety” and was adopted into the Hawaii State Constitution. One supporter of the bill said, however, that Kanawai Mamalahoe allows people to only rest and move on and not to take up permanent residency on public property.
While many opponents of the bill strayed into ideological diatribes about the plight of houseless people and the crippled economy, all urged the Council to defer the bill on the grounds that it unfairly targets the “homeless” while providing only a cosmetic, stop-gap solution to the problem of occupiers of public property.
Many of those in favor of Bill 54 were associated with business and commerce organizations, including a man from the Chinatown Improvement District, and Chinatown property owner Alan Stack, who called the measure “sound property management.” The Neighborhood Boards of Kalihi-Palama, Chinatown, Downtown, and Moiliili also supported the bill’s passage.
Although the bill has passed, serious questions remain about its intent and its implementation. Even to those who support the bill, its potential impact is as yet unclear. While it may encourage some houseless people to seek outreach services, it negatively impacts those without such an inclination.
Those Councilmembers who voted in favor of the bill cited either a desire to address the “homeless” problem, as did Councilmember Garcia, or a desire to protect the rights of the public to access public property.
A “sunset” amendment to the bill, which would end and review the law in one year, failed to pass, with eight Councilmembers saying that they already have the ability to revisit and adjust the law. Cachola, who proposed the amendment, said it would force the City to examine whether or not the measure serves its intended purpose.
Interestingly, many of those on both sides of the issue acknowledged that the bill does nothing to address the problem of “homelessness” in Honolulu. All agreed that the problem must be addressed, but the polemic nature of the debate over individual and public rights regarding the “homeless” remains.