Study shows sit-lie laws have worsened Honolulu’s houseless problem

A new study shows the city's policy of “compassionate disruption” and its accompanying sit-lie laws cause significant property and economic loss, physical and psychological harm and very likely violate certain constitutional rights. Not only that, they make it much harder for houseless people to get off the streets and into permanent housing.

News Report
Will Caron

Photo by Marina Riker | Courtesy INHNL

The Honolulu City Council’s Zoning and Planning committee met today to discuss several new iterations of “sit-lie” bills that would modify and enhance the city’s ability to forcibly remove houseless individuals and families from the sidewalks of commercial and business districts in Honolulu. The spate of sit-lie bills that have been passed out of our current municipal legislative body (with just a few switches over the last couple years) go hand-in-hand with our city’s executive branch policy toward the houseless, which Mayor Caldwell calls “compassionate disruption.”

The strategy includes sweeps and tent-encampment raids intended to encourage (or compel) houseless citizens to seek out shelters and other services, rather than remain visible on sidewalks. Proponents of sit-lie legislation support it as a balanced approach to issues of pedestrian safety and concerns over houselessness. Critics argue that sit-lie laws systematically stigmatize a class of people and unnecessarily turn a social welfare issue into a matter of criminal persecution.

While council members Anderson and Ozawa were arguing for a complete, island-wide ban on sidewalk sitting and lying, and that 90 percent of Kakaako-based houseless are Compact of Free Association (COFA) migrants (a comment that feels like it’s edging into the realm of racial denigration, particularly when the study shows that the number of houseless Micronesians in Kakaako and the other two areas is only 19 percent), respectively, today, graduate students Tai Dunson-Strane and Sarah Soakai from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) released the results of a study they conducted examining the effects of Honolulu’s sit-lie laws and the strategy of compassionate disruption. The results confirm what many activists have been saying ever since the laws were first passed: the city’s current policy toward the houseless does not work. In fact, it does much more harm than good.

The study examined whether such measures are reaching the goal of allowing people experiencing houselessness in Honolulu to access shelters and other services. The project also examined the overall effects of the policies on houseless individuals and families. Seventy survey interviews with the adult heads of households were conducted at three encampments in Kakaako, Kapālama Canal, and Aala Park—which are all heavily populated with people experiencing houselessness. Three main effects of city sweeps and sit-lie policies on the houseless emerged from the data: (1) the policies cause property and economic loss, (2) the policies cause physical and psychological harm, and (3) the policies create possible constitutional violations.

The vast majority of the houseless population surveyed in the study experienced significant property and economic loss due to sit-lie policies, including the loss of tents, clothing, medicine, food, children’s items, household items, and identification documents such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates. Petty misdemeanor charges and personal property replacement costs added financial burdens, making it even more difficult for affected people to get into positions to obtain adequate and appropriate housing. The loss of property due to sweeps, as well as a criminal record from sit-lie fines and arrests, affected numerous individuals and their abilities to seek, or to continue to seek, employment and shelter.

The data show that a high proportion of those surveyed suffered significant physical stress and psychological harm resulting from sweeps, including anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. Sweeps further compounded already vulnerable states of mental and physical health due to many people’s traumatic experiences from becoming houseless. Not only did the sweeps themselves have emotional and psychological impacts, but also prevalent was the fear of impending sweeps. Over two-thirds (67 percent) of those surveyed stated that they were worried about future sweeps taking place.

The Fourteenth Amendment and Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provide every citizen both equal protection and the right to due process, respectively. Existing state laws and ordinances, as written, do not protect the houseless population from unwarranted confiscation of property. The data show a high frequency of sweeps wherein authorities may have violated the Constitutional rights of the houseless. The majority of those surveyed had not received any notice when personal property was seized. The high frequency of sweeps in which the houseless could not retrieve personal property without paying a substantial fine suggests that existing laws may need to be further examined or repealed in favor of policies that ensure more adequate protection of the property and civil rights of the houseless.

Based on the serious impacts of the city’s current policy toward the houseless, the co-authors make five recommendations to lawmakers:

1. The suspension of sweeps until adequate and appropriate temporary shelter is available for subjects of sweeps, given the three overarching negative effects noted above.

2. A review of the constitutionality of current sit-lie laws should be conducted in light of these and other investigative report findings.

3. Adequate training in trauma-informed care should be required for those who engage with the houseless population, including police officers, contracted personnel, City Facilities Maintenance personnel conducting sweeps, and others.

4. A moratorium on the expansion of sit-lie bans and other ordinances until further investigation is done on the physical, psychological and financial harms on the homeless.

5. A formal investigation of the alleged lack of prior notice stipulated in ordinances among those subjected to sweeps to monitor implementation according to law.

There is clear evidence that the sit-lie ban and related ordinances that comprise the policy approach of “compassionate disruption” cause multiple harms to one of the most vulnerable populations in the islands. Meanwhile, there is a shortage of both temporary shelter and affordable housing units in a high-priced and increasingly speculative real estate market. The problem of houselessness will not be solved through punitive policies that increase harm to this population. Adequate solutions are possible when all levels of governance including citizens and communities recognize houselessness as a significant problem in Hawaii and prioritize resources to more adequately address it. This report clearly shows that short-range strategy will only lead to more serious long-term problems.