City committee defers proposed sit-lie bills, mayor expresses disappointment
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The city's Zoning and Planning committee has voted to indefinitely defer two bills that would have made it illegal for people to sit or lie on public sidewalks. The council committee made their decision after grilling officials with the Mayor's office during a meeting Thursday at Honolulu Hale.
Both bills, a county-wide and Waikiki-area ban, are now on hold until council members say they can be assured city officials have alternative housing options in place to assist the homeless who will be displaced if the bills should pass. Two bills that would have made it illegal for people to urinate or defecate in public areas were also indefinitely deferred. The city council committee cited the lack of access to public restrooms as the primary factor in their decision.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell says these concerns have never been raised before Thursday's meeting and wouldn't be an issue if the council had only addressed the area he proposed targeting, which is strictly Waikiki.
"I'm very disappointed that the council has chose not to move forward at this time on two critical bills -- Bill 42 and Bill 43 that deal with our sit-lie bill and our urination and defecation bill. These are very important tools that are helping us address the evolving and changing homeless problem in our community that has been around for a very long time," said Caldwell. "I have to ask what happened from the time the bill was introduced less than a month ago til now that changed things?"
Citing a failure by members of Mayor Kirk Caldwell's administration to provide a concrete readiness date for shelter alternatives for the homeless, Chair Ikaika Anderson says there were too many unanswered questions raised about the measures -- including the one he authored, which would have expanded the ban from Waikiki to all of Oahu.
"I would've been comfortable moving these bills forward today if we had heard from the Administration that they had a definitive plan in place and if they had a definitive date as to when their plan would be rolled out. We did not hear that today. All we heard from the Administration today was uncertainty. Until we hear from them some certainty and some definitive dates as to when their plans will be prepared to go into action, we're not going to be willing to move forward. At least, I'm not going to be willing to move forward," Anderson said.
Caldwell says he was very surprised his measures did not advance out of the council committee.
"Never did they ask, 'Is there enough shelter space for the people that we're moving? Nor did they say, 'Let's stop and slow down until we can address that issue'," Caldwell said.
"How come today that's an issue and last week it wasn't an issue? Last week it was 'Let's go fast. Apply it to the whole island.' Now, 'Let's stop. Let's not even move one mile an hour and let's get all these answers.' I say, 'Let's focus on Waikiki like I started'," said Caldwell, who indicated the shift in support from Chair Anderson was specifically surprising given his prior enthusiasm for the measures.
Bill 45 was written by District 3 council member Ikaika Anderson to expand upon a proposal by Mayor Kirk Caldwell, which would have limited the sit-lie ban to Waikiki.
The original measure, Bill 42, is crucial to Mayor 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.
"I would have liked to apply it to the entire island if we could have, but we had to look at putting in bills that would be able to withstand constitutional scrutiny. We looked at other jurisdictions that had challenges and we found legislation that we thought would work and then we made it specific to Waikiki because of the unique nature of Waikiki. When we announced these two bills, standing with Council member Ikaika Anderson in Waikiki, we said, 'Let's try here first. Let's see if it works here first and perhaps then we can look at Chinatown and other places in a refined way to make sure it can withstand constitutional scrutiny.' Why did we pick Waikiki? One it is our growth engine. It's our number one industry -- almost $15 billion being generated there and employing the majority of people in our state in terms of one industry. We picked Waikiki for this reason too, we know that in any given day there's 50 to 100 chronic homeless people in Waikiki. Those are the folks that are lying on our sidewalks and sitting in places they should not be and those are the folks that are urinating and defecating on our beaches and in our grass in our parks -- where our local folks who are going down to go surfing or just go for a walk or swim laps or watch the sunset or whatever else -- they're stepping in poop along with visitors or tripping over people who are lying in the middle of a sidewalk, a beautiful well-paved sidewalk put in by Mayor Harris. We knew that with that population of 50 - 100 there was sufficient shelter space. In fact, today, right now there are about 116 beds in various shelters around here on this side of the island for people to go into. That's more than enough for everyone of those people who are sitting and lying in places they should not be in Waikiki to move into a shelter," Caldwell said.
Advocates of the island-wide and Waikiki proposals say the measures are necessary to clear the homeless from Oahu's streets, which would implement a 24-hour ban so that everyone can safely and freely use them. If the bills become law, violators could be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to 30 days in jail.
More than a dozen members of the community waited hours to share their perspective on the proposed sit-lie bills. The few who testified in support of the Waikiki sit-lie bill represented the tourism industry in the area -- saying the growing homeless population is hurting the state's number one economic engine. A vast majority of testifiers voiced their opposition to the proposals -- most saying it is necessary for the city to first ensure safe, available shelter for the homeless prior to implementing such measures.
Among those who testified against the sit-lie bills were the Martin's, a family from Pearl City who Hawaii News Now has profiled twice in the past week. Tracy and Tabitha Martin say they were evicted from their apartment after Tracy had a heart attack and could no longer return to work at full-capacity, costing him to lose his job. The Martin's say they have nowhere else to go after they were denied entry into a shelter when Tracy was unable to show his ID, which he says was seized when crews came through enforcing the city's sidewalk nuisance ordinance. Their daughter Thalia turned three today and the Martin's say they wish they had another choice other than to raise their daughter on the sidewalk in Kaka'ako.
Though city officials would not comment about the Martin's specifically, they did tell the media it is not true that ID's are required at all shelters, including Next Step which services homeless who live in the Kaka'ako area.
Prior to testimony from the public, members of Caldwell's administration were called upon to answer rapid-fire questions by several council members -- most of whom expressed concerns it was premature to pass any sit-lie bills without first ensuring there are adequate alternatives to house all the homeless who are currently living on the streets.
Jun Yang, the Executive Director of the city's Office of Housing, says the last point-in-time count on Oahu indicates there are 4,712 homeless. Of that number Yang says 1,663 are chronically homeless and 558 are unsheltered. Yang says the majority of the chronically homeless live in Waikiki, Chinatown-Downtown and along the Waianae coast. According to the most recent reports, Yang says there are 70 to 120 chronically homeless in the Waikiki area. He says Bill 42, which would create a 24-hour sit-lie ban on Waikiki sidewalks, would help address the most needy and vulnerable population of homeless living there by getting them off the streets and into services that can help them through the city's Housing First initiative.
Despite repeated inquiries, city officials could not tell council members exactly when the initial Housing First units will be available, even though Bill 42 has language indicating it would go into effect immediately.
The city Director of Community Services Pamela Witty-Oakland says the city has budgeted $3 million to target housing the chronically homeless. Witty-Oakland says the city has yet to secure a request for proposal that will establish a contract to provide rental assistance vouchers to 100 individuals, but hopes it will be in place by October.
took issue with the $30,000 per individual cost associated with housing only 100 of the 558 unsheltered chronically homeless who have been identified.
The city's Managing Director Ember Shinn asked the council committee to specifically support Bill 42, ensuring council members there is currently enough housing to assist the homeless living in the Waikiki geographic area.
Several proposed amendments to the sit-lie bills were not enough to keep the measures alive. One proposal would have changed the effectiveness of the island-wide ordinance from a 24-hour prohibition to 5 a.m. - 10 p.m. Another proposal would have amended the measures to extend both sit-lie ordinances to public malls.
One of the more thoroughly discussed amendments would have established designated areas or geographic boundary restrictions instead of an island-wide ban. It proposed the creation of six zones on O'ahu where the sit-lie prohibition would apply, specifically areas that are zoned as commercial or business.
City officials say the next step will be to meet again with all the stakeholders and work on a plan to move forward.
"We'll try to answer every concern that they have, but we may not have every answer they want -- but all of us live in that world where you're not going to get every answer. I know what we're doing is the correct thing. I know that the majority of people on this island support this effort and I think they're going to be disappointed when they find out it's been deferred indefinitely and they're going to want to know what's next and I'm telling them we're going to see what we can do to keep moving this forward and we're going to be rolling out permanent supportive housing for our chronic homeless," said Caldwell.
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