City and state to suspend homeless sweeps during annual census
Hawaii News

City and state to suspend homeless sweeps during annual census

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / OCT. 3

    Officials plan to temporarily postpone homeless sweeps Jan. 14-25 to coincide with the annual Point in Time Count to try and ensure getting an accurate number of Oahu’s homeless population. Pedestrians walk by homeless on the sidewalks of South King and Pawaa streets.

State and city officials plan to temporarily postpone homeless sweeps a week before — and during — the upcoming annual Point in Time Count to try and ensure an accurate census of Oahu’s homeless population.

Barring serious crimes or a public health emergency, the city also plans to temporarily postpone enforcement of its Stored Property and Sidewalk Nuisance ordinances — key tools that allow city crews to break down homeless encampments.

The idea is that it will be easier for volunteers and social service workers to count homeless people where they normally live during the Point in Time Count, which is scheduled for Jan. 22-25 this year.

“We are going to suspend our enforcement of SNO (Sidewalk Nuisance Ordinance) and SPO (Stored Property Ordinance) from Jan. 14 to the 25th, unless we get a call or a complaint about a real bad problem,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Homeless sweeps tend to scatter people into different neighborhoods, where it’s harder to track them down, said Heather Lusk, who is helping to organize this year’s Point in Time Count on Oahu as vice chairwoman of Partners in Care.

“They’ve agreed not to do any enforcements,” said Lusk, who is also executive director of the Hawai‘i Health & Harm Reduction Center. “When people are scattered it’s harder to get an accurate count.”

While some mainland communities only count their homeless populations on a single night, Hawaii’s Point in Time Count runs Jan. 22-25 across all of the islands this year.

“For the state, we agreed not to do any actions that would displace large amounts of people during the week before and during the Point in Time Count,” said Scott Morishige, the state’s homeless coordinator.

Morishige emphasized that law enforcement officials will still respond to reports of violence or serious criminal activity.

“It’s not that there’s no enforcement of illegal activity,” he said. “The main point is that everyone wants to make sure we get as accurate a count as we can, and we support the efforts of Partners in Care.”

The plan follows criticism directed at city officials by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii — and 24 other organizations and individuals — for conducting sweeps over the holidays.

“We understand the city’s stated intent for doing this is to help get people into shelters. We agree with that goal,” the ACLU said in a Dec. 30 statement that was signed by individuals and groups including the Muslim Association of Hawai‘i, Unite Here Local 5, The Interfaith Alliance Hawai‘i, Honolulu Hawai‘i NAACP, Japanese American Citizens League Honolulu Chapter, Temple Emanu-El and Democratic Socialists of Honolulu.

“But we don’t understand why these sweeps must occur in the middle of the night, when shelters and services are limited,” according to the statement. “And we don’t agree that threatening people with arrest if they refuse is practical. Furthermore, with the Point in Time Count fast approaching, these sweeps threaten to undermine public confidence in the accuracy of the count.”

Caldwell said Oahu’s homeless shelters can have as many as 50 vacancies per night.

The holiday sweeps were part of Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” philosophy to get homeless people into shelters, where they can get off the street and receive help for their problems.

“They would have had a warm meal, and actually a decent Christmas meal, along with a warm place to sleep,” Caldwell said.

In a shelter, Caldwell said, homeless people can “feel safe, get counseling, get help and get into permanent supportive housing.”

Studies show that homeless people have a life span 20 years less than a nonhomeless person, and Caldwell asked, “Is that compassion? … Someone lying in feces — is that compassionate?”

Caldwell said he would prefer to work with the ACLU in counting Oahu’s homeless and get more housing vouchers.

“We don’t want to fight,” Caldwell said. “I ask the ACLU to join with us to get more people off the streets … not to advise them that they have a right to stay in a park or street corner to die 20 years earlier. Help us get those vouchers, help us get those (rental) units and help us get those folks into those places.”

In a statement Friday, Kit Grant, deputy director of the ACLU of Hawaii, said: “As a civil rights advocate, the ACLU is here to ensure everyone’s civil rights are upheld. We’re at a fork in the road: Hawaii can keep criminalizing poverty, or we can change course and work together to find community-­based solutions like permanent supportive housing, no-eviction shelters, increased access to health and mental health treatment, investments in social workers, and letting police focus on actual crime. This second path is constitutionally sound and based in aloha. And as shown by the (Dec. 30) statement released by over 20 groups and individuals expressing disappointment in the city’s New Year’s Eve sweeps, there’s growing recognition that what the city is doing isn’t working, and that a broader dialogue is needed with the community.

“We are pleased that unlike 2018 — when the city announced sweeps leading up to the Point in Time Count — the city and state are coordinating with the agency responsible for the count. But without details on the terms of that agreement, it is hard to know whether it will make a difference in ensuring the count’s accuracy. We continue to hope we’ll be able to work with the city, advocates, and more in the new year to find a more effective, more humane, and constitutional way to reduce houselessness and the harms caused by not having a home in Hawaii.”

Overall, the number of homeless people across the state has fallen by 9 percent in each of the two previous Point in Time Counts.

Even though the islands have seen two consecutive years of declining numbers, Hawaii still has the nation’s highest per capita rate of homelessness.

In January 2018, 6,530 homeless people were counted across the islands — compared with 7,220 who were counted in 2017.

Lusk hears criticism about the accuracy of Oahu’s Point in Time Count numbers all the time and has a simple reply: Volunteer and find out for yourself.

“I understand the skepticism,” she said. “This is an opportunity for you to get involved and have a more informed critique.”

So far, 200 people have volunteered to undergo training this week.

But Lusk would like to have another 200 volunteers to conduct the Point in Time Count across seven Oahu regions.

Those who survey the homeless should wear comfortable clothes and walking shoes; bring water, a flashlight and an umbrella; and prepare for rain.

Would-be volunteers who are not comfortable talking to homeless people also can help by entering the data that volunteers compile, organizing hygiene kits that are offered to the homeless and providing food.

“Four hundred volunteers is a lot of people to feed,” Lusk said. “And even though the count stops on the 25th, we still need volunteers to do data entry. There are lots of opportunities to get involved if you don’t want to be in the field.”

WHO TO CALL

To notify the city about illegal homeless activity, call 768-4381.

HELPING OUT

To volunteer for the Point in Time Count, visit www.partnersincareoahu.org/point-time-count-oahu.

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