Mayor Caldwell signs homeless bills into law

Mayor Caldwell to sign homeless bills into law
Published: Sep. 16, 2014 at 10:57 AM HST|Updated: Sep. 17, 2014 at 2:06 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Three bills aimed at combating a growing and complex homelessness issue on Oahu were signed into law Tuesday and will go into effect immediately.

Bill 42 makes it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on sidewalks in Waikiki.

Bill 43 makes it illegal to urinate or defecate on public property or private property open to the public in Waikiki, while Bill 46 prohibits anyone from urinating or defecating in public places across the island.

Violators could be fined up to $1,000 and spend up to 30 days in jail as a result of the petty misdemeanor. However, the bills call for no one to be cited unless they are first warned that the conduct is a violation and then continue the activity. Officials say police officers will also be handing out information cards that list available support services, shelter locations and program phone numbers when they make contact with homeless individuals.

City councilmembers approved the bills last week, after initially deferring them in July -- saying they needed to be assured officials have alternative housing options in place to assist the homeless, who raises concerns they would be displaced if the bills passed.

The state estimates there are 4,712 homeless living on Oahu. City officials say there are currently 4,396 beds -- which includes all transitional shelters, emergency shelters, safe havens, permanent supportive housing and mental health assistance.

The controversial bills have raised concerns they will criminalize being homeless, which is not illegal -- but Mayor Kirk Caldwell calls the measures key to his "compassionate disruption" homeless plan. The two-pronged approach steps up enforcement of existing park-closure, stored property and sidewalk nuisances ordinances while also establishing funding to provide additional shelter and other services for the homeless. Caldwell says the model 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 through the city's Housing First initiative.

Mayor Caldwell says he understands there are some homeless individuals who choose not to go to shelters. Many cite concerns about rules, bed bugs or safety, but Caldwell says there's no doubt in his mind it is more dangerous for people living on the streets. Caldwell says seven homeless people have been murdered on the streets of Oahu in the last year and no one has been killed or seriously injured at a local shelter.

The Waikiki sit-lie measure is patterned after Seattle's sit-lie ordinance which was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as not violating the First Amendment or substantive due process. However, unlike Seattle's ordinance, Caldwell's proposal would be effective 24-hours. Mayor Caldwell says this is necessary because of the hotel and commercial businesses in the Waikiki area, which cater to the visitor industry on round-the-clock basis.

There are exemptions to the sit-lie bill, including -- if a person is sitting or lying on a sidewalk due to a medical emergency; or if they're engaging in an expressive activity or attending a festival, performance or parade. It also protects individuals who are sitting in a chair or bench that has been placed by a public agency upon a public sidewalk or anyone who is sitting in line for a good or service -- so long as their possessions aren't impeding the ability of pedestrians to use the sidewalk or enter a doorway.

Homeless have often complained in the past that access to a restroom is the primary factor in their need to use the bathroom in public, since park facilities close at 10 p.m. and don't reopen until 5 a.m. As a result, Caldwell says the city partnered with the Waikiki Business Improvement District to keep one restroom open 24-hours near the Waikiki police substation.

The urination/defecation bill is similar to a state law that makes it illegal for people to relieve themselves in public areas downtown. Governor Neil Abercrombie signed a bill extending that prohibition through Dec. 31, 2016.

Exceptions would be allowed for people who fail to use a restroom or toilet facility because of physician-verified medical conditions, and those using portable toilet facilities.

Many Waikiki tourism officials and local business owners have voiced their support for the measures, especially those in the Waikiki area, who say they've suffered financially. Industry experts say the growing issue of homelessness in Waikiki is the number one threat to the state's tourism industry. They say these measures now ensure the health and safety of residents and visitors alike.

The ACLU of Hawaii has opposed the sit-lie bill saying, "Criminalization of basic human functions in the absence of options for shelter violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment."

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