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Honolulu Mayor Learns The Hard Way That Criminalization Isn’t The Answer To Homelessness

A homeless man sleeps near Waikiki Beach CREDIT: AP/CATHY BUSSEWITZ
A homeless man sleeps near Waikiki Beach CREDIT: AP/CATHY BUSSEWITZ

Less than a year after deciding to handle his city’s homeless people like criminals and call it “compassion,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell (D) is acknowledging the policy has failed and pausing some of the official sweeps that have pushed the destitute out of his downtown since last summer.

The key item in Caldwell’s package of “compassionate disruption” laws was a ban on sitting or lying down on city sidewalks. The mayor cobbled together a crew from the city parks department to enforce that “sit-lie” law and bolstered existing police efforts to sweep homeless people out of parks, arrest them on misdemeanor charges, and confiscate their belongings.

The city has spent $1,875,000 on Caldwell’s homelessness laws since last summer but hasn’t managed to either meaningfully reduce the number of people living on the street or disappear the homeless from Honolulu’s public spaces as Caldwell intended. Instead, the city’s homeless population has become concentrated in a neighborhood called Kaka’ako, where roughly 500 people without homes now live in makeshift tents. The sit-lie bill does not apply in Kaka’ako, but a separate ordinance prohibiting people from storing personal property on sidewalks and public land does.

The mayor has decided to discontinue the enforcement of the property storage law in Kaka’ako until the city can build housing and hire service staff to address the deeper roots of the problem, Hawaii News Now reports. A Caldwell spokesman told ThinkProgress that the city has invested tens of millions of dollars into affordable housing projects, most of which are not yet completed, and noted that police have made just 6 arrests under the sit-lie law, compared to 203 official citations and 3,774 verbal warnings.

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“We have done enforcements in the past but what happens is they just move onto other state property, stand there, let us clean everything up on the sidewalk, then we leave and they move right back,” Caldwell told the news station. “We need [staff] to find units to move the folks in Kaka’ako into shelter and into permanent supportive housing,” he said, calling such practical housing solutions “the compassionate side to our compassionate disruption program.”

Roy Amemiya, Caldwell’s City Managing Director, offered an even clearer acknowledgement that the city has spent the past year focused solely on punishing the homeless without providing solutions to their dilemma. “We instituted sit-lie bills to move people out,”Amemiya said, “but we didn’t give them a place to go.”

The administration is asking Honolulu lawmakers to find a little over $600,000 to hire seven full-time affordable housing staffers. Neither Caldwell nor Amemiya clarified whether the “disruption” sweeps would resume once the city builds out the “compassion” part of the plan.

Honolulu didn’t need to pay nearly $2 million to get this lesson in homelessness policy. Dozens of cities in the United States could have told city lawmakers that criminalizing homelessness only reshuffles the indigent population without helping people regain their economic footing. One study in Florida found that criminalizing homeless is three times more expensive than simply giving them permanent places to live and providing the social services that are key to successfully re-entering society. The federal government has advocated the “Housing First” model of homelessness policy for a few years now, after that simple and effective approach gained consensus support among advocates on the ground over decades of work.

Caldwell’s spokesman said the city has been investing significant resources into Housing First ideas at the same time that it began enforcing the criminalization measures in targeted downtown areas. Yet hundreds of local governments continue to take the outmoded, shortsighted approach modeled in Honolulu. A survey of local laws in California found more than 500 separate anti-homeless statutes in just 58 of the massive state’s jurisdictions.

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A similar study released this month in Washington found that 72 cities in that state have passed 288 new laws targeting the homeless since 2000. Laws similar to Caldwell’s “sit-lie” were the most common avenue the Washington towns used to jail homeless people. Seattle and Spokane alone have spent close to $4 million enforcing such laws in the past 15 years — money the researchers say could have saved nearly nine times as much if it had been spent putting homeless people into houses rather than handcuffs.

Update:

This story has been updated to include information provided by the Honolulu mayor’s office.