New houseless bills won’t help

The city's “compassionate disruption” strategy does more to hide the houseless problem from tourists than it does actually solve the underlying problems that lead to houselessness.

Will Caron

The city’s struggles to find a solution to the complex, multifaceted issue of houselessness in Honolulu continue to divide the community. Despite substantial testimony in opposition today, Mayor Caldwell passed three controversial city council bills that social justice advocates and houseless citizens argue criminalize being houseless. Meanwhile, business owners—particularly in Waikīkī—have long contended that the presence of houseless citizens sitting and lying in sidewalks is bad for business, and largely support the measures.

Bill 42 makes it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on sidewalks in Waikīkī, while bill 43 makes it illegal to urinate or defecate on public property or private property open to the public in Waikīkī. Bill 46 prohibits anyone from urinating or defecating in public places across the island. The new ordinances go into effect immediately.

Violators could be charged with a petty misdemeanor, fined up to $1,000 and could have to spend up to 30 days in jail. While the bills call for no citation without an initial warning, opponents charge that similar language requiring police to allow houseless persons to retrieve belongings before they are confiscated is routinely ignored by officers raiding houseless camps.

During a July City Council meeting which saw the measures deferred until now, H. Doug Matsuoka—head of the Hawaiʻi Guerrilla Video Hui, a group that documents and films encounters between citizens and wings of the government, especially involving the Honolulu Police Department (HPD)—testified that he’s documented HPD and city crews during the “midnight raids” first hand. “I’ve witnessed HPD and the city crews taking and destroying bedding, tents, clothing, food from the people on the sidewalk,” he said.

Kathy Xian, former candidate for U.S. Congress and Executive Director for the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery says research shows that laws targeting houselessness through forcible removal of houseless individuals from sidewalks and parks and jailing or fining them do not work.

“Despite the majority of testimony in opposition to these measures criminalizing poverty, studies, and advice from the federal government and the United Nations opposing local laws such as these, the Mayor and the City Council have proven that not only do they not listen to reason, but that they do not abide by any democratic process,” she said. “It is shameful and embarrassing that our elected leaders choose to scapegoat the poor and blame them for the downturn of the economy when it is these same leaders who are to blame for our regressive tax system, lack of low cost housing and the eroding of our public services.”

Kris Coffield, Executive Director at IMUAlliance, agrees with Xian. “Criminalizing homelessness fails to satisfy the needs of justice demanded by people in poverty,” he said. “These people need compassion without disruption, as well as the housing, healthcare, and employment opportunities necessary to survive.”

Mayor Caldwell calls the new measures key elements of his “compassionate disruption” plan. The strategy both steps up enforcement of existing park-closure, stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances and establishes funding for housing first. The thinking is that if the city makes it difficult for people to live on the streets, they will voluntarily move into shelters where they would have access to services to treat addiction, assist the mentally-ill, and provide job training to ultimately help houseless citizens become self-sufficient. The state estimates there are 4,712 houseless living on Oʻahu.

But this attitude toward the houseless—that if we can just get them off the streets and into shelters and housing, the problem will somehow disappear—is naïve. It assumes that all houseless citizens want to enter shelters and live in houses. Besides the concerns over restrictive rules, sanitation and safety in shelters—concerns city officials dismiss—some houseless citizens simply do not want to conform to the societal mold that mainstream American culture has defined as a “proper” lifestyle. And forcing them to conform to that standard is a violation of their rights as human beings.

“Part of the the problem with these bills is that they lump all homeless people together, glossing over differences in the houseless population,” said Coffield. “The bills seem to imply that all homeless people are houseless [because of a] choice they made and, more cynically, that they’re all dangerous. That’s simply not true. Homeless people are indigent for a variety of reasons, including financial hardship, mental health issues, and medical problems, to name just a few.”

Instead of really examining that multitude of problems that lead different people to become houseless, the city’s “compassionate disruption” strategy is a one-size-fits-all approach that seeks to simply remove houseless individuals from visibility, sweeping them under a “housing first” rug to placate tourists and the business owners who depend on them for income.

“My main concerns with these bills are that they violate people’s constitutional rights to due process and free assembly, and they advance discriminatory enforcement against the the poor as a class of citizens,” said Coffield. “They don’t address the primary reasons for homelessness in Honolulu: lack of affordable housing and scarcity of comprehensive health programs. Because the cost of living in Hawaiʻi is so high, we’re all little more than one lost job and a single bout of mental illness away from being homeless. It’s a wonder, then, that we don’t have more empathy for our houseless neighbors.”

“People will eventually see that these new laws, as proven in other cities, are ineffective, costly, and a waste of time—not to mention traumatizing to the poor,” said Xian. “The Mayor and City Council has this as their legacy.”