The city’s updated, 95-page action plan for tackling homelessness unveiled by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on Thursday calls for launching public safety initiatives and providing more health care services for the unsheltered.
“We are all facing, and we see it every day, increasing violence and aggressive behavior on the streets, abusive of public property, and we want to be able to address that with the proper disciplines,” city Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said Thursday.
“These folks need help with health care and we need to take care of public safety,” she said.
“In the urban core, we have a very hardened element of homelessness, people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol,” Caldwell said, citing a man who was killed by Honolulu police officers Sunday after he lunged at them with a knife. “We want to get those people off the street, and into shelter and being taken care of. That is the more compassionate thing.”
According to the report, those new initiatives would be done primarily through partnerships with various agencies including the state Health and Human Services departments and the Honolulu Police Department.
It noted that HPD recently partnered with the private sector to establish a medical services center in Chinatown.
“Efforts to address the increasing aggressive and violent behavior among homeless persons require partnerships with law enforcement and health care entities,” the report said.
“The advocates for mentally ill homeless persons are reporting increased psychotic behaviors on the street and individuals who are extremely service resistant,” the report said. “Any success with housing the current population of individuals living with severe mental illness will require professional skills beyond the social services currently contracted by the City and enters into the scope of health care services.”
City Council members were asked to offer suggestions on how to improve services for the homeless in their districts. All responded and most provided suggestions in the report.
Caldwell signed into law Thursday the bills that make it illegal to obstruct city sidewalks and to “lodge” on public property.
Bill 51 makes it illegal between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. to “create, cause or maintain” an obstruction on a public sidewalk if it blocks pedestrians from passing freely. The measure applies to anyone who obstructs the sidewalk, including vendors who operate mobile kiosks. Violators could be fined 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. 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. City officials said that doesn’t mean a shelter space needs to be in the same Council district.
Honolulu City Council members, before passing the bills on Oct. 3, inserted language that states the city cannot begin enforcement of the new laws until they first approve via resolution an updated action plan to be submitted by Caldwell.
Caldwell said he has no issue with providing reports for the Council but questions why they needed to be linked to the two bills.
To help speed up the process, Caldwell said he is introducing nine resolutions — one for each Council district. “So those Council members who actually want action can request that the Council take up their district (resolution) and say ‘approved by resolution,’” he said. “And then we can take action so there’s not even further delay.”
Council members Ikaika Anderson and Joey Manahan, who both voted against the bills because of the reporting requirements, flanked Caldwell during the bill-signing and immediately signed the resolutions for each of their respective districts urging colleagues to give the go-ahead for enforcement to begin in their districts.
“In my estimation, that language made the bills both limp and ineffective,” Anderson said.
The original bills, initiated by Caldwell, are the first designed to clear sidewalks across the island. The administration previously rejected proposals to impose the so-called sit-lie ban islandwide due to constitutional issues.
City Corporation Counsel Donna Leong said these two new laws will be able to withstand legal challenges, although the American Civil Liberties Union Hawaii chapter and other homeless advocates warned they conflict with recent federal appellate court rulings.
Caldwell and supporters say the new laws are designed to keep sidewalks clear for pedestrians, but opponents argue that their main goal is to punish the homeless for not having a roof over their heads.
The ACLU of Hawaii has repeatedly warned that the bills are unconstitutional, suggesting that they may mount a legal challenge to block them from being enforced.
Josh Wisch, ACLU of Hawaii’s executive director, said the city could reach out and offer services to the homeless now. “What they want to do is do it under threat (of punishment),” he said.
Wisch said he also sees an attempt by city officials to use the homeless as scapegoats for crimes in the community. “They’re using that as an excuse to try to turn those in the unsheltered community into boogie men, to scare people into thinking they all violate the law. That’s just not true. Most of these folks are just living peaceably just trying to get by.”
Both bills were approved by the Honolulu City Council 6-3 on Oct. 3, with Anderson, Manahan and Brandon Elefante voting “no.”