In a further effort to clear the homeless from Oahu’s sidewalks, the Honolulu City Council gave final approval Wednesday to two bills that would ban people from obstructing or lodging on public places.
The approvals came despite constitutional questions raised by the American Civil Liberties Union’s Hawaii chapter, which also argued the legislation will not reduce homelessness and criminalizes the act of living without a shelter.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell, who initiated both bills, characterized Bills 51 and 52 as additional tools in the city’s quest to reduce the homeless presence on public sidewalks. It’s the first time his administration has supported an islandwide ban.
Previously, the administration has argued that its sit-lie, stored property and sidewalk nuisance ordinances that cover certain commercial districts could not be applied islandwide due to constitutional issues. City attorneys believe the two new bills avoid those legal pitfalls because they are aimed at ensuring pedestrian safety, not penalizing the homeless, and outlaw sidewalk obstructions only during certain hours.
One of the bills also contains a caveat that a citation cannot be issued unless an attempt is made to find shelter for the offender.
Caldwell indicated he would sign the measures despite his objection to language added by the Council that requires his administration to submit an updated report on its homeless initiatives before allowing the two new bills to be enforced.
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Caldwell said: “Even with my signature, enforcement will be delayed. The public is crying out for help in clearing sidewalks for their own safety.”
Both proposals were approved 6-3, with Ikaika Anderson, Brandon Elefante and Joey Manahan voting “no.”
Bill 51 makes it illegal between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to “create, cause or maintain” an obstruction on an Oahu public sidewalk if it “interferes, impedes and/or prevents” pedestrians from passing freely. The measure applies to anyone who obstructs the sidewalk, including vendors who operate mobile kiosks. Violators could be subject to fines of up to $100.
Bill 52 makes it a petty misdemeanor “to lodge” on a sidewalk or other public places. It defines “to lodge” as “to occupy a place temporarily; to sleep; to come to rest and refuse to vacate” a public place. The bill requires that a police officer issuing a citation must first verify there is shelter space available within a reasonable distance and then offer to take the person being cited to the shelter.
Both bills have drawn opposition from advocates for the homeless who argue they are ineffective in reducing homelessness on Oahu and unfairly make it a criminal offense to be homeless.
The ACLU Hawaii chapter, among others, also questions if the bills will pass legal muster following a recent federal appeals court opinion striking down a similar law in Boise, Idaho. City attorneys, however, insist the Idaho ruling would not apply to the two new bills here.
Mateo Caballero, ACLU Hawaii chapter legal director, said his group also backs the idea of requiring the additional study before the new laws are implemented.
“Without the reporting requirement, Bills 51 and 52 are just a blank check to the administration to make it a crime to be too poor to afford housing in Honolulu,” Caballero said.
About half a dozen homeless individuals testified before the Council on Wednesday, describing the difficulty of trying to hold a job and establish a stable environment while dealing with the city’s periodic sweeps under existing sidewalk laws.
Mike Fernandez said it’s ridiculous that he is labeled a criminal because he doesn’t live in a house.
“On more than one occasion, I come home from work and everything that I’ve worked for is gone,” Fernandez said. “Every time you take everything I have, I have to start all over again.”
Testifying in support of Bill 51 were Waikiki businesses and residents who supported it because they said it would remove the mobile kiosk vendors that they feel are creating a safety hazard for pedestrians and taking away business from merchants who pay rent.
Jim Fulton of the Waikiki Improvement Association said 12 to 15 mobile kiosks pop up on a daily basis on sidewalks in the tourism hub. “These kiosks have effectively, without city permission, monetized public space for private purposes,” he said.
Reacting to the new language inserted in the two bills by the Council, City Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said that under Resolution 18-158, adopted by the Council in August, the administration already is required to submit a comprehensive report detailing the progress of its initiatives to combat homelessness in the coming weeks.
She said the new report requirement — and the need to have it approved by the Council via resolution — would only delay implementation of the new strategies.
Several Council members said they support the additional requirement inserted by Public Works Committee Chairwoman Carol Fukunaga.
Councilwoman Kymberly Pine said she and her colleagues are frustrated that not enough has been done by the administration to deal with homelessness. “You need a direction and a plan on how to solve things, not just move people around,” she said.
Pine, Councilman Trevor Ozawa and Council Chairman Ernie Martin criticized Caldwell for holding a news conference Monday to voice his opposition to the report requirement.
“I don’t think it’s a high standard to ask the administration and the mayor to come up with a comprehensive plan for each of our districts that gives us some sort of long-term vision here at the city,” Ozawa said.
City Housing Office Executive Director Marc Alexander insisted a plan has been mapped out on the city’s housing office web page.
“The administration has had and has been implementing a comprehensive plan,” Alexander said. “It is one based on research.”
Manahan, who voted “no,” said he’s had good communications with the administration about the homeless initiatives the city is undertaking in his district. He said that he doesn’t feel a report requirement is needed.