It would no longer be legal to raise a tent on a public sidewalk in certain areas where the homeless have migrated in increasing numbers if the City Council passes a bill next week defining the use of sidewalks in urban Honolulu.
The bill, up for a vote Wednesday, is aimed at homeless people who block the sidewalks by pitching tents, stacking furniture and otherwise piling up possessions in areas where they can stay.
Sidewalks blocked by the homeless are particularly prevalent in the McCully area, where Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said constituents asked for help with the problem and prompted her in part to write the proposed bill. She also believes it would help to remove squatters who block business entrances in Waikiki.
The bill would only apply in Honolulu’s urban zones, which include Ala Moana, Kakaako, Downtown, Kalihi, McCully, Moiliili, Makiki and Waikiki.
Residents of the McCully area have been concerned for months about the 20 to 30 people camping on the sidewalk surrounding the McCully Public Library, McCully/Moiliili Neighborhood Board Chairman Ron Lockwood told a reporter Thursday. Children have been approached with drugs, and parents are afraid to take their children there, he said.
"It’s just a bad situation where people can’t use a public library," Lockwood said. "It’s a big problem in our neighborhood."
But the neighborhood board on Thursday voted 7-2 (with four abstentions) to not support the bill, concluding that in its current form it fails to address the problem of homelessness.
The sidewalk proposal is the latest in a series of moves by city officials aimed at rousting the homeless from city streets and parks. In 2009 the City Council shelved a bill that would have outlawed sitting, sleeping or lying down on a public sidewalk. Earlier this year the city banned tents and shopping carts at city parks.
"We want to put housing first," Lockwood said of the board’s position.
Kobayashi said she was surprised that the board rejected her bill after asking that the city do something.
"This is the best we can do to ensure people have the right to walk on the sidewalk," she said.
The bill is not about solving homelessness, but is an attempt to take "back the right of pedestrians" and people using wheelchairs and baby strollers, she said, noting that a similar law in Portland, Ore., has been successful in keeping sidewalks clear for wheelchairs to pass.
Some board members opposed a time limit that was added to the current proposal, saying it reduces the law’s effectiveness. The bill would specifically ban blocking the sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., or until 2 a.m. in Waikiki.
Board Vice Chairman Greg Cuadra said the time limit would result in shuffling the homeless from parks, which are open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., to sidewalks at night.
Without the time limit, he said, the homeless would be forced to consider staying in a shelter.
"We’re bouncing them back and forth," he said. "That’s not right. They need a place to stay."
At McCully Library last night, where tents and belongings lined the sidewalks, one man who identified himself only as John sat in a folding chair between two tents and several bikes.
He said he lives on Date Street but was just visiting. He said the city should put its efforts into solving homelessness, not additional laws.
"Why don’t they find a solution to solve the problem … so they don’t have to go through all this?" he said. "Try to solve the problem."
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the bill because it limits the use of items engaged in free speech on the sidewalk, such as a soapbox.
The proposal has been amended to include exemptions, such as allowing outdoor furniture to be used for expressive purposes. Another exemption includes using the sidewalk during a parade, rally or demonstration.
Kobayashi said the bill could be further amended to bring in elements from a bill that was written by the city administration. That bill, Bill 41, creates rules for removing property from sidewalks, similar to rules for removing property from city parks. It allows the city to auction off or dump the property after 30 days.
If passed Wednesday, the law will not take effect for 60 days to allow for education of the public.