State House names Tom “Sledgehammer” Brower as Housing chair

Rep. Brower attracted national attention for his sledgehammer-wielding vigilantism (and for getting punched in the face while filming homeless encampments without permission)

Will Caron

The State House has named Rep. Tom Brower as the new chair of the Housing committee in the lower house of the legislature. Houseless activists reacted to Brower’s appointment with mixed feelings at best, but some expressed hope that he will work with stakeholders to implement best-practice solutions to houselessness and affordable housing.

“Tom ‘Sledgehammer’ Brower as chair of the Housing Committee for low income folks? Sounds like putting a fox in charge of the hen house to me,” said David Mulinix of DeOccupy Honolulu. “We had our DeOccupy Honolulu camp at Thomas Square for two full years, engaging with the houseless on a daily basis, and we’ve been feeding the houseless at Thomas Square every Sunday for five years but, as far as I know, Tom Brower has never come by to ask us our insight and experience on what’s going on for the houseless.”

“Selecting Rep. Brower as the Committee Chair for Housing signifies a surprising lapse of judgment on the part of House Leadership,” said Kathy Xian of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery (PASS). “Brower’s personal and professional conduct toward the houseless is clearly unbecoming and alarming. He shows a crude lack of compassion for those less fortunate, has publicly destroyed property that wasn’t his in his attempt to bring attention, not to housing solutions, but only to himself during a failed publicity stunt, and has lied to advocates by claiming responsibility for past bills drafted to protect the houseless from unconstitutional raids. This is not the type of candidate ideal for this position, nor any position in the House that requires compassion, rationality, and jurisprudence.”

“Brower must realize that he can’t take a sledgehammer to the state’s housing crisis,” said Kris Coffield of IMUAlliance. “He must work with all stakeholders to create truly affordable housing and stem gentrification, while also ensuring that new development plans consider community needs, like increased school capacity. One of Brower’s first priorities should be to increase the state renters’ credit to $150 for households making up to $60,000, giving long overdue relief to working class residents who are barely scraping by.”

Brower voted twice in favor of HB2580 in 2014, incrementally raising the minimum wage in Hawaii.

His stated position on his website when it comes to creating affordable housing is: “To better stabilize market conditions, provide more tax incentives, reduce tax and building costs, and require developers to provide affordable, market rate and rented units in residential projects. Encourage renovation funding incentives for vacant public and private housing sites.”

In 2013, after he agreed to stop smashing the shopping carts houseless folks use to transport belongings, we examined Brower’s voting record from that year as it related to housing. You can read about the bills here.

The following is an op-ed written by Brower and published by the Hawaii Reporter in 2010, outlining his position on the homeless issue in Honolulu. Although it’s possible his feelings toward the houseless population has changed since 2010, this op-ed indicates that Brower considers Honolulu’s houseless population to be a nuisance, an attitude reinforced by his decision to smash the shopping carts of houseless people and his harassment of houseless families in Kakaako. He does not address solving any of the socio-economic problems that cause many people to become houseless.

When a natural disaster strikes and people become homeless, government reacts quickly to provide them shelter. Why should the response be any different during an economic crisis that gives rise to homelessness?

In the past three years, I have traveled outside Honolulu to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Hong Kong. Guess whose popular tourism spots have the worst homeless problem?

The reality is we will never be able to build enough shelters to house the State’s 4,000-plus homeless and it is inhumane to keep shuffling them around. “No loitering” laws only work when people have a place to go.

On the flip side, government needs to remove the homeless from areas of aesthetic, cultural and economic importance for the enjoyment of residents and visitors.

Hawaii residents are frustrated with government’s lack of response to this issue. Yet, whenever I talk to city and state officials, they always tell me they are doing a great deal. Perhaps they are only helping a certain type of homeless and not the more challenging and visible type, the chronically homeless, who refuse to go into shelters.

Our homeless problem has evolved; so too must government’s response. It is time for the Mayor’s and Governor’s Administration—the latter of which established the Kakaako Next Step homeless shelter—to take another step.

How can government continue using the same failed strategies to address homelessness? How is this different from the definition of “insanity’ (keep doing the same thing with the expectation of different results)?

As a legislator I understand first-hand that chronic homelessness does not offer easy solutions. The best place to start is often the simplest. I propose safe zones as a short-term, reasonable and do-able solution until things change and the number of homeless decrease. While not a new idea, I explored the feasibility of this solution this past legislative session, after speaking with advocates and service providers to address residents’ complaints about homelessness.

With the adoption of H.R. No. 62 (2010) by the House of Representatives—and continued community-sponsored discussions—homeless safe zones are being recognized as a cost-effective, compassionate alternative to homelessness.

I cannot force the State or City Administrations to follow my plan; I can only hope they see its value.

We know where we don’t want the homeless to be because they are already “camping” there, illegally. We can either designate areas where the homeless can be—or do nothing and let them continue to be everywhere.

If enough safe zones are created, the homeless cannot say they have “no place to go” and continue monopolizing our parks and sidewalks. They will now have a place to go. Should they choose not to go there, the homeless must understand, from this point forward, they will not have unlimited access for “camping” at popular spots. Being homeless should mean fewer options on where you can stay, not more.

For homeless service providers, safe zones would make it easier to track/ care for their clients and control the spread of infectious diseases, like hepatitis. For law enforcement, the homeless would be easier to remove from unauthorized spaces.

We have the manpower. Experienced and knowledgeable people—such as service providers, church groups and other volunteers—stand ready to help implement the safe zones.

All we need is the land. A pilot program could be implemented and tailored to whatever area is first identified to gauge the level of success before expanding to other parts of the State. Rules would be established to restrict “camping” to certain times and provide safety for safe zone residents as well as the community housing them. A minimum of amenities could be provided, such as ‘reasonable’ night security and bathroom facilities.

Whatever shape the solutions take will be no worse than what we have today. Democracy is at its best when challenges are embraced instead of avoided as has been the case with chronic homelessness. In reality, it takes just as much energy to put up with or avoid problems as it does to fix them. I encourage the community to keep sharing their concerns with government officials until better results are achieved. Elected and appointed government officials, who have endless energy to campaign, need to maintain that energy level once in office to seek better solutions to our community problems.