Gov. David Ige’s administration wants to make it a crime to trespass on all state lands, but homeless advocates worry that could give homeless people a criminal record by expanding the areas that are off-limits to set up camp.
A bill in the Legislature would apply criminal trespassing laws evenly across state lands, said Josh Wisch, spokesman for Attorney General Douglas Chin, who’s pushing the bill.
Honolulu already has a law banning sitting and lying down on sidewalks, and critics see the state bill as a way to expand that type of law to state properties.
“There is a trend across the country to criminalize homelessness,” said Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “It’s part of a very misguided and harmful effort to respond to visible poverty, through criminalization.”
Right now criminal-trespass laws don’t apply to improved state lands — meaning land that’s built or improved in some way — and it’s unclear whether Hawaii’s trespassing laws apply to state land under freeways or in boat harbors, Wisch said.
Officials are trying to combat problems like copper theft and arson, and the proposed trespassing law would apply to everyone, not just homeless people, Wisch said. Before someone is arrested for trespassing, the state follows federal case law, which requires that the state would have to confirm that there’s a shelter vacancy and would have to ask the person to leave, he added.
“The state can’t just target homeless people and arrest them,” Wisch said.
But Mandy Finlay of the ACLU of Hawaii was worried that the bill would disproportionately affect homeless people, many of whom live in harbors or under freeways. Hundreds of people are living on state land near a boat harbor in Waianae.
“On any given night there’s going to be at least one or two thousand unsheltered individuals, and only a couple of hundred available shelter beds,” Finlay said. “So until there’s sufficient housing for homeless individuals and families, we should not be expanding criminal trespass law to target homelessness.”
The Department of Land and Natural Resources supported the bill, saying it would allow immediate removal of offenders trespassing or conducting illegal activities on state land. Many of the state’s small boat harbors, trails and forest reserves are used for illegal activities such as unpermitted camping, illegal alcohol consumption and disorderly conduct, said Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, in testimony supporting the bill. That trespassing can kill native wildlife, she said.
The Department of Transportation also supports the bill because it’s been having a tremendous problem with copper theft on state land, Wisch said.