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Rep. Ward’s new urine bill is crap

When will our lawmakers realize that bills criminalizing the houseless won't fix the problem?

Will Caron

Rep. Gene Ward (District 17, Hawaiʻi Kai, Kalama Valley) joins the list of lawmakers who are completely clueless when it comes to addressing our state’s tragically high rate of houselessness. Co-introducer Tom Brower (District 22, Waikiki, Ala Moana)—who, unbelievably, was made chair of the Housing committee this session—has long been on that list (sledgehammer vigilantism anyone?). Along with Reps. Lynn DeCoite (District 13, Haʻikū, Hāna, Kaupō, Kīpahulu, Nāhiku, Pāʻia, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi, Molokaʻi, Molokini), Joy San Buenaventura (District 4, Puna), Calvin Say (District 20, St. Louis Heights, Pālolo, Maunalani Heights, Wilhelmina Rise, Kaimukī) and Sharon Har (District 42, Kapolei, Makakilo), Ward and Brower introduced a bill (HB 1595) last week that would “create urine-free zones as a means of protecting the public’s health.”

While public health concerns should certainly be taken seriously, this is another in a long line of bad policies that do more harm than good for our houseless population and the community at large.

Oʻahu politicians including Brower, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann and former Honolulu City Councilwoman (and current Congresswoman) Tulsi Gabbard have long supported measures aimed at targeting the houseless and, effectively, punishing them for being houseless. Just like the Honolulu sit-lie bans and encampment raids, this bill does nothing to address the causes of houselessness and, instead, seeks to criminalize behavior that, while unfortunate, is not usually the fault of the person engaging in it. No one—with perhaps a few exceptions—wants to urinate or defecate in either public spaces or on private property, just as no one actually wants to sleep on the doorstep of the Kūhiō Avenue McDonalds in Waikīkī. The houseless members of our society who engage in this behavior do it because they have no choice.

This inhumane and, very likely, unconstitutional (see Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution), steaming piece of legislation, just like the laws and ordinances enacted before it, ignores the socio-economic realities that lead to houselessness in the first place. Our socio-economic system has made thousands of our brothers and sisters—families, keiki and kūpuna—houseless, and now we’re going to penalize them for it?

All you have to do is read the insulting and condescending statement Ward put out on the bill today to see how backwards he is in his strategy for addressing the public health concern that comes with public urination and defecation:

A person can be lying in their feces in a public stairwell and have an absolute constitutional right to do so, but the citizens walking over or through this public health hazard have no rights.

Really? It’s the rest of us who have no rights in the context of poverty and houselessness?

On top of this, the bill won’t be effective at bringing down the number of houseless, or addressing the mental health or drug abuse problems that might lead to a person becoming houseless, despite attempting to establish mandatory treatment as one possible consequence of violating the proposed law. Studies and first-hand accounts have shown that people do not respond well to forced treatment, just as they don’t respond well to forced sheltering.

In Seattle, police have found that, when given the option to visit an assessment center (as opposed to being forced into one or jailed), houseless people are much more likely to respond positively. When given the choice, most people will seek help.

“Beat cops know the people that get into trouble. In Seattle, they were getting frustrated because they’d have to arrest someone, and do a bunch of paperwork, and then those people would be back the next day,” said Kat Brady, Executive Director of the Community Alliance on Prisons. “Criminalizing them doesn’t work. So the cops met with service providers to identify the mental health, substance abuse, houselessness and family abuse issues that people had and they got together to try and fill the needs in the community.”

The Seattle Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program has seen great success in breaking the cycle of incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders, reducing overall drug crimes and reducing recidivism.

The other possible consequence of Ward’s proposed new law is a fine—one that houseless people will certainly not be able to pay, and which will result in even more inmates in an already bursting-at-the-seems state prison system. Instead of criminalizing the houseless and making their already difficult lives even more challenging, we should be assessing the different needs the houseless population has and establishing a comprehensive suite of community programs designed to address those needs. Some programs already exist, and they should be bolstered, and additional programs that intersect and reinforce one another should be developed and funded.

“Rep. Ward should focus on increasing funding for Housing First, the nationally recognized best program for meeting the needs of our state’s houseless population,” said long time houseless advocate and Executive Director of IMUAlliance, Kris Coffield. “Criminalizing people for being poor is cruel and inhumane. We need a longterm strategy to make Hawaiʻi more affordable, one that targets the foreign and mainland real estate speculators driving up our state’s cost of housing and, in turn, cost of rent. We have condominium complexes where the units are almost entirely owned by nonresidents paying average prices in the millions. We need to spend less time catering to people using Hawaiʻi as their personal Monopoly board and more time meeting the needs of our state’s most economically vulnerable population.”

Our elected officials must educate themselves about the causes of houselessness and make a genuine commitment to advancing socio-economic equity, instead of foolishly throwing short-sighted, ineffective and injurious legislation at the problem that targets and penalizes poor, sick and at-risk members of our community.

Kathy Xian, another long time houseless advocate and Executive Director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery sums it up succinctly: “Urine free zones won’t address anything effectively. Creating more funding for mental health services and public bathrooms will.”

She added, “I’d rather he address the feces dumped overboard from the 700 fishermen trafficked to work on the longline fishing industry at our harbor first.”