A state legislator has published a map of suspected homeless people in his district in an effort to raise public awareness of the problem, but some attorneys say the effort could be unconstitutional.
In his November newsletter to constituents and on his personal website, Rep. Gene Ward has a map pointing to allegedly chronic homeless people who have taken up residence in and around Hawaii Kai.
The map describes a man at China Walls as a meth addict “Whose Mother Has Restraining Order Against Him” and, at Hawaii Kai Towne Center, a “Mentally Ill Homeless Man (who) Frequently Screams at People.” They are among 11 suspected homeless hot spots from Sandy Beach to Hahaione.
For Ward it’s a safety issue.
Ward (R, Kalama Valley-Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai) said he worries about homeless encampments in Hawaii Kai, so he helped form a homeless task force in August and has been writing about East Honolulu homeless issues ever since in his monthly newsletter.
His map of homeless locations took up one-third of the front page of his two-page newsletter in November and is featured prominently on his website, gene-ward.com.
Ward said he had two messages in mind when he published the map:
“We know where they are and what they’re doing,” Ward told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “This is to let the community know that we know where they are, and those people in homeless communities (need) to tell their friends that Hawaii Kai is not a friendly community.”
But Ward could be running afoul of federal privacy laws that protect the disclosure of medical conditions, as well as jeopardizing potential federal funding to Hawaii from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said Tristia Bauman, senior attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based National Law Center on Homeless & Poverty.
“All of the various ways that excluding an entire group of people and telling them that they’re not welcome has been found over the course of American history to be unconstitutional,” Bauman said. “To devise a map could run afoul of a number of different laws. We all are free to move in and out of neighborhoods at will under the Constitution. That’s part of our liberty. And it could create unintended consequences such as vigilantism.”
Bauman said such efforts don’t work and merely raise a false sense of security among concerned residents.
“We find this to be common across criminalization strategies across the country,” she said. “Government knows it will not produce long-term solutions, but it does give the appearance of doing something for people who don’t like to see people living on the street. It’s really ineffective, bad policy that doesn’t address any of the underlying causes of homelessness. The answer isn’t to chase them out of wealthier neighborhoods and push them into less affluent neighborhoods.”
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, Bauman said, HUD provides funding to “incentivize constructive alternatives to criminalization, such as those types of policies that successfully and effectively address the underlying causes of homelessness.”
As a case in point, Rhode Island officials years ago added the names and photos of suspected homeless people to a website of sex offenders, Bauman said.
The effort was intended “to try to shame people and point them out,” she said. “For what purpose is unclear to me since it didn’t get them off the street.”
Rhode Island officials took down the website in response to threats of legal action, Bauman said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii also called Ward’s map potentially unconstitutional.
“Publishing a map of ‘reported homeless events’ in public areas only serves to move us further away from addressing the causes of homelessness,” Mateo Caballero, the Hawaii ACLU’s legal director, wrote in an email to the Star-Advertiser. “Instead, it is an open invitation to further profile, dehumanize and harass those that have nowhere to go except our parks, sidewalks and shared public spaces. The Constitution protects the rights of the poor and homeless against government policies that target them unfairly or criminalize their mere existence.”
Ward couldn’t say that publishing the map has led to any reduction in homeless complaints or activity in East Oahu, and couldn’t recommend the idea be duplicated in other island communities.
“Until there are results we can document, we’re not ready to say it’s ready to replicate,” Ward said.
He said it did not occur to him that readers of his newsletter might visit the sites to personally inform the homeless that they are not welcome.
As part of his initiative, Ward created what he calls the Hawaii Kai Advisory Council, which includes a four-member Hawaii Kai Homeless Task Force.
Task force member Lane Woodall, a Mariners Cove resident, insists the map — along with ongoing offers of assistance to the homeless — already has reduced Hawaii Kai’s homeless population.
“A lot of people have their head in the sand and didn’t even know about the encampments,” Woodall said.
Woodall has formed a separate organization she calls “CATFIGHT: Citizens Aligning to Fix Inadequate Government Handling of Transients.”
“For us it’s a safety issue,” she said. “I’ve lived in Hawaii Kai for 40-some years. I want to feel safe in my neighborhood. I don’t know if they’re on drugs, if they’re sex offenders. They could easily yank you off the street and rape someone. Neighborhoods have to become more assertive and say, ‘It’s not fair to allow people in your communities without any protection for its citizens.’ … I’m on the lookout every night.”
Ward distanced himself from Woodall’s comments.
“Lane’s not a mainstream representative of this task force,” he said. “She’s too aggressive. She’s too much vigilante. She considers what we’re doing as too passive.”
But, like Woodall, Ward believes it’s in the public’s best interest to publish the location of every homeless person in East Honolulu.
“Pointing out a clear and present danger is part of my job,” Ward said. “It’s important for people to know where there’s danger.”