The foundation of Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s homelessness strategy was built on two promises: He assured the public that he would end sweeps of encampments and replace police with social workers to address nonviolent 911 calls.
Now nine months into his term, neither promise has been fully realized.
Citations for homelessness-related offenses are higher than before Blangiardi took office.
At the same time, Blangiardi’s original plan to respond to homeless-related complaints with social workers — which originally was scheduled to start this summer — has been delayed. Hiring is just beginning, and 911 calls will continue to be sent to police, who will be given the option to call a team of social workers to respond to homelessness complaints.
In Blangiardi’s “Roadmap to Recovery,” a document he released while campaigning for the mayoral seat, he vowed to end former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s policy of “compassionate disruption,” which included frequent sweeps of homeless encampments along with offers of social services, including housing and substance abuse treatment.
“Eliminate the City’s use of so-called compassionate disruption,” Blangiardi wrote.
“Especially during COVID- 19,” he said. “This approach merely moves homeless individuals from park to park and street to street.”
The city’s Office on Housing and Homelessness maintains that sweeps no longer occur but said the city does conduct “sanitation efforts.”
“The sanitation efforts are really targeted at belongings, cleaning up the streets and are not targeted at people,” said Anton Krucky, director of the Office on Housing and Homelessness.
“We offer everybody services, but we’re really focused on cleaning up the street.”
Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” philosophy offered services before an enforcement action but relied heavily on police to issue citations and arrest those who were uncooperative or would not enter a shelter.
Krucky said that during sanitation efforts HPD officers are “not doing citations much at all.”
Instead, citations are given out during regular patrols, he said.
Since Blangiardi took office, data requested by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser from the state Judiciary shows a steep increase in 16 of the most common homeless-related citations, such as violations of sit-lie laws and the sidewalk and stored-property ordinances.
Beginning in 2019, Caldwell’s administration began increasing the number of those types of citations, which then decreased by the end of 2019 and into the first quarter of 2020 as fears of COVID-19 took hold.
Then, suddenly, the number of citations skyrocketed from 1,086 in April 2020 to 4,277 in June that year.
Care providers at the time criticized Caldwell for increasing the enforcement of these laws as the unemployment rate shot up and shelter space became even more limited to accommodate social distancing.
After the spike, the number of enforcements began to dramatically decrease through the end of 2020, bringing the number back down to 1,267 at the end of Caldwell’s term as mayor.
However, when Blangiardi began his mayoral term in January, the number of citations jumped again.
Between April and June 2021, 3,833 citations were issued— only 444 fewer than at the peak of the Caldwell administration.
Krucky said that there is likely not a link between citations and the city’s enforcement actions, but explained the city would have to continue to analyze the data to understand what is causing the uptick in issued citations.
“I know people want to link it and say, ‘Look, it’s the same thing as before.’ And I think that’s unfortunate to do that,” he said.
“I think our intent is completely different. It’s targeted differently.”
But Josh Wisch, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, said the number of citations shows that the city continues to sweep Oahu’s homeless but just under a new name, “sanitation efforts.”
“For the city now to say that we’re not doing sweeps anymore is at best a game of semantics if they’re calling it something else, and at worst, just simply not true,” Wisch said. “The sweeps are absolutely still happening,” he said.
Wisch said he knows that people are still told that if they do not leave an area, they will be arrested and taken to jail.
“Whatever you want to call them — if you want to call it compassionate disruption, if you want to call them sweeps, if you want to call them sanitation outreach — they are still happening,” he said.
“What the Caldwell administration was doing before is still happening under the Blangiardi administration.”
The city is still sending outreach before any sanitation effort, posts a notice 24 hours before and gives people 30 minutes after arriving on the scene to collect the items they want to take with them or want the city to store, Krucky said.
Deja Ostrowski, a staff attorney at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children, emphasized that citations can be even more damaging than sweeps.
“That adds something onto their record. It’s something that can look very scary when they’re looking for employment,” she said.
“An employer who maybe doesn’t really know how to read the background, they just see 300 criminal citations, or 100 or even 50 criminal citations. And they don’t know it’s only for being in a park or sleeping on a bench. And then it really prejudices people in a way that is just as harmful.”
Ostrowski asked the city to question its use of the criminal justice system when addressing homelessness.
“It’s about poverty, ” she said.
“The only reason police are involved is because we have chosen to criminalize the act of being poor, or sitting on a public space, if you happen to be too poor to afford rent.”
One man, who said his name is Love Burners, has been homeless for several years and usually stays around the Kapahulu area. Burners said there has been more enforcement than ever.
“I’ve got more tickets than anything,” he said recently. “We know the drill: When the guys come, we just go.”
Burners said police usually cut him and his friends some slack because they always keep their place clean, but things have been getting worse. While Burners spoke, his friend Jerome, who was living out of his car after losing his job during the pandemic, hurriedly asked Burners to assist in moving his vehicle. Jerome was told an enforcement action was going happen in the next 30 minutes.
“They take all the stuff. Everything you can’t take, they just take it,” said Jerome, who did not want to give his last name.
“They just got really aggressive with it lately. … What used to be every other week has become every other day.”
Between January and June, 156 citations were issued for HRS 291C-112 Human Habitation in Car, compared with 211 during the same period in 2020.
Care providers such as Dr. Christina Wang with the Hawaii Health Harm Reduction Center say they have seen detrimental effects of moving homeless people from place to place. Wang has been running an outreach program in Chinatown on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past seven years.
“What ends up happening is the patient loses a lot of continuity of care,” she said.
“They get shuffled along and we can’t find them, our outreach workers can’t find them, and then they sort of get lost for a while and we have to start all over again. So it really does a disservice to actually fixing the larger crux of the issues.”
Wang explained that regardless if formal sweeps of homeless encampments are no longer happening, the outcome has been the same. The increased citations are causing people to move from area to area, disrupting outreach efforts and stalling progress to get people into more permanent housing.
The Blangiardi administration has kept its campaign promise to support efforts like H3RC’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, where low- level offenders are diverted from being arrested to individualized case management. LEAD will be operating in Waikiki as well as continue its current program in the downtown area.
Krucky has also obtained $1.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding for his Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement program, which will use social workers to help respond to nonviolent homeless emergency calls.
“Now our emergency services, our ambulance guys, they can start interviewing. We can start prepping the headquarters, and they can start painting the truck,” he said.
CORE will be housed within the department of Emergency Medical Services. There will be two trucks to start, staffed with about five people, and there will need to be at least two shifts. In total, the department will need to hire about 15 people.
Originally, the program was supposed to divert nonviolent, homeless-related 911 calls away from the Honolulu Police Department and send social workers in their place. However, 911 dispatchers will still need to send police to these calls, and the police will then call the CORE team if it is needed. Because CORE will be housed within EMS, the department can directly send CORE instead of an ambulance if the situation is appropriate.
The setup of CORE is reminiscent of Safe on Scene, a partnership between the Domestic Violence Action Center and HPD which ended in 2018. Through the SOS program, police officers would call DVAC employees when responding to domestic violence calls. DVAC would send an advocate to assist victims with crisis support. The SOS program ended after three years.
Krucky explained that the CORE team will be able to roam when they are not responding to calls and could, for example, meet someone in need after they are released from the hospital to provide the social work support.
“I’m hopeful that it’ll seize opportunities and be proactive and not just a reactive response unit,” he said.
CORE workers could stay with individuals who are still in need after the police are gone, giving them more comprehensive support than what an officer can provide.
“It’s still police diversion,” Krucky said.
Although Krucky had estimated in July that CORE would be implemented this month, he said he cannot yet give a definitive start date.
“Give CORE time. We’re still just coming out of the gate. I’m trying to build a system within a government entity. … Let’s get it started and best minds will prevail,” he said.
“It’s that decision on the street that someone makes,” he said. “(With) CORE, what we’re hoping is that maybe not the first visit, but the second visit or the third visit, they can they can get somebody to accept services.”
HOMELESS-RELATED CITATIONS ISSUED
From January 2019 to June 2021
Period No. of citations
January to March 2019 494
April to June 2019 808
July to September 2019 1,325
October to December 2019 1,194
January to March 2020 1,086
April to June 2020 4,277
July to September 2020 2,754
October to December 2020 1,267
January to March 2021 1,792
April to June 2021 3,833
Source: Hawaii State Judiciary