Concerns raised over Honolulu homeless proposal

Published: Jul. 10, 2014 at 10:13 PM HST|Updated: Jul. 11, 2014 at 3:18 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A day after Honolulu city council members approved a bill that would make it illegal for people to sit or lie on public sidewalks, opponents are raising concerns the 24-hour-a-day, island-wide ban will simply move a growing homelessness problem from one area to another.

The controversial proposal still faces a final vote, but advocates say it's necessary to clear the homeless from O'ahu's streets.  Bill 45 was authored by District 3 council member Ikaika Anderson who wrote it to expand upon Bill 42, which was introduced by Mayor Kirk Caldwell and would have limited the sit-lie ban to Waikiki.  The measure is crucial to Caldwell's "compassionate disruption" model, which is based on social service providers telling officials that if they make it difficult for people to live on the streets -- they will voluntarily move into shelters instead.  Officials say the hope is that once people enter shelters, wrap-around services to treat addiction, assist the mentally-ill, and provide job training will ultimately help these people become self-sufficient and able to maintain permanent housing.

Critics of the measure say that's oversimplifying a complex problem and a myriad of reasons why some homeless are not in shelters when they could be.

"Criminalizing the homeless is not an adequate way to deal with the homeless issue.  In fact, it actually exacerbates homelessness by putting them through the criminal justice system, which tends to be very abusive for non-violent offenders who've done nothing wrong either than be poor," explained Kathryn Xian, the Executive Director for Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery and a human rights advocate.

"It's telling the public as well as the homeless community that they're not wanted. They're not wanted in any area.  They can't be who they are.  They can't be human beings and exist if they're poor and they don't have a house.  They can't exist anywhere and that is intrinsically unconstitutional," Xian said.

Sam has been living on a piece of cardboard tucked under a picnic table along the canal off Dillingham Boulevard in Kalihi for the last 10 years.

"They're going to have to lower something, like rent, or pay more wages.  I mean, it's ridiculous.  People can't afford it.  Every day there's more homeless," Sam said.

Sam says he has more neighbors than ever, as people are getting pushed out of other areas and into what used to be a grassy area along Kohou Street that now looks like a camping ground complete with tarps and mattresses.

Right now, Hawai'i statutes prohibit homeless from sleeping on the beach or in parks at night.  They're also not allowed to sleep in their own cars on public roadways.

In talking to the homeless, there are many reasons why some don't go to shelters -- from lack of space to not wanting their family separated.  Some worry about bed bugs or safety or simply don't like the rules.  And others just can't afford to pay what some shelters charge.

"They go from A to B to C to D to E and back to A," said Sam.

Sam, like many others in his situation, is wondering -- if it becomes illegal for him to sit or lie on a public sidewalk, where is he supposed to go? 

Xian says it's a concern she has raised every time the city or state has proposed a similar measure.

"Not only is it unethical and immoral to do so, it also increases the issue and the problems of homelessness in other districts that didn't have that problem before," Xian explained.

Xian says the measure may be successful at clearing the homeless out of tourist areas, like Waikiki, but it will just push them elsewhere, not solve the problem.

"We need to really see this issue for what it is and come up with real solutions rather than quick fixes that only traumatize the homeless population and burden tax payers who foot the bill for the incarceration and the court costs for criminalization.  What we need to do is create housing first, not second.  It's not jail first, it's housing first," Xian said.

Sam agrees.  He says without housing in place for the homeless to move into, they'll just keep roving around the way they do now when enforcement sweeps come through -- a current crackdown effort he describes as pointless.

"My friends come.  I put my stuff in his van for a couple hours.  They come check and do what they got to do while I'm out of here.  Tomorrow afternoon, tomorrow evening -- I'm back," Sam said, explaining his plans for the next sweep which he was notified will be happening Friday morning.

Alan helps make sure Sam has a place for the few things he still owns.

"This is reserved for Sam only.  He's the only one who sleeps here underneath the area," he says tapping the top of the bench where Sam has been spending his days for the past decade. 

When asked what they do after the police leave, Alan smiles and says, "Unpack things and put them back wherever Sam wants it."

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