Class-action suit alleges city’s ‘targeted enforcement’ of homeless is unconstitutional

Five homeless residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the city over its homeless policies, which they say criminalize living on the streets.
Published: Jul. 26, 2023 at 12:12 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 26, 2023 at 12:16 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Five homeless residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the city over its homeless policies, which they say criminalize living on the streets.

The suit isn’t seeking money, but asks the court to put a stop to “targeted enforcement actions” against homeless residents ― including sweeps, citations and arrests ― until the inventory of shelter beds and affordable housing units on Oahu grows to meet demand.

“I’ve been through a lot this year being houseless and I lost a lot especially during these sweeps,” said Faimafili “Fili” Tupuola, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “Every time starting over again it really takes a toll.”

The ACLU notes that there are 2,300 homeless on Oahu, but fewer than 50 vacancies in shelters. Given the lack of shelter space, the lawsuit alleges the city’s enforcement of laws that prohibit sleeping, sitting, or lying in public spaces “constitutes cruel or unusual punishment” and violates homeless residents’ free movement and due process rights.

“People experiencing houselessness have the same fundamental rights under the U.S. and Hawaii Constitutions as those who are lucky enough to have housing and shelter, yet the day-to-day reality regarding the exercise of those rights is much different for our houseless neighbors,” said ACLU of Hawaii Legal Director Wookie Kim, in a news release.

“Our plaintiffs and houseless neighbors are denied these fundamental rights, and other constitutional guarantees, far more flagrantly and far more often than housed people. The city is essentially penalizing houseless people for their very existence.”

The class-action suit comes as the state grapples with a worsening housing crisis. The governor has issued several emergency proclamations aimed at streamlining processes and services to tackle the issue. At the same time, housing service providers are reporting little progress in addressing chronic homelessness, or those on the streets for a year or more.

One of the named plaintiffs in the suit, Jared Castro, called the regular city sweeps “stressful.”

“It makes me feel awful to be singled out by the city and its police officers all of the time. These are things that we go through on a regular basis, and I am sad to report that interactions like these are my normal,” said Castro, who has received 200 violations over the last three years for actions like failing to comply with park signage or sleeping on the sidewalk.

The city issued the following statement on the suit:

“We understand that a lawsuit has been filed and the Department of Corporation Counsel is reviewing the allegations and cannot comment at this time.”

But some Oahu residents told HNN they understand the city’s push to address unsheltered people living in public areas.

“I do think they are necessary. The public deserves to have its parks and sidewalks to be safe,” said Mike Coppes, a Kailua resident. “The critical issue is making sure that when they remove them, they have some place to take them that is safe for them as well.”

Some go as far as asking the city to ramp up the sweeps.

“They need to clean it up,” said one woman works across the street from a park frequented by unsheltered people.

While the public debate on the issue goes on, no court date has yet been set for the current legal case.