A Honolulu homeless shelter is legally allowed to require a resident to nurse while covered or in a private room, according to a national breast-feeding advocacy group that has researched the issue.
Karen Penley called the hotline for Best for Babes Foundation after employees at the Institute for Human Services shelter told her she couldn’t breast-feed out in the open. Penley, 27, who has been living at the shelter with her two children for about three weeks, said her 9-month-old son, Nakana, doesn’t tolerate being under a nursing cover, and she prefers not to nurse in a cramped and hot room.
Penley said she felt the shelter was violating her right to breast-feed in a way that’s comfortable for her baby. Connie Mitchell, executive director of the private nonprofit social services agency and shelter, said the request was made out of consideration for residents who complained.
The foundation’s director of activism, Michelle Hickman of Houston, said Thursday that the organization has researched the legal interpretation of Hawaii’s public-accommodations law. While the law allows mothers to breast-feed in any way they want in any place that’s considered a public accommodation such as a store or park, homeless shelters are considered residential areas.
"Not anyone can walk into the shelter and stay there," Hickman said, explaining why the shelter can’t be considered a privately owned place of public accommodation.
But William Hoshijo, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, said it’s not quite that clear.
"There’s a question of whether a shelter is a public accommodation, housing or both," he said.
Hickman said this issue has come up in other parts of the country.
"Governments aren’t allowed to tell you what you can or cannot do inside your home unless it’s something like child abuse," Hickman said. "Therefore, because the shelter is considered a residential area, they would fall under the legal loophole, or exception … for being able to legally have a policy in place requiring a mother to cover up."
Even though the shelter doesn’t have a formal policy on breast-feeding, it’s still legal to put restrictions on how residents nurse, Hickman said.
She said the foundation can help the shelter formulate a policy that works for all residents — an offer Mitchell said she plans to accept. There have been nursing mothers at the shelter before, but this is the first time breast-feeding has been an issue, Mitchell said.
While it’s a relief to know the shelter is within its rights, Mitchell said, officials won’t change a previous decision not to take any action against Penley if she doesn’t abide by their request.
"Regardless of what rights we have at the shelter, we respect any woman’s rights to breast-feed," Mitchell said. "We really believe in breast-feeding, and I do, as a nurse, and I want to support that."
Penley, who now nurses in a private room when it’s available, said she’s disappointed to learn how the breast-feeding law applies to the shelter.
Jennifer Sinco Kelleher, Associated Press