Mayor Proposes ‘Compassionate Disruption’ Law To Criminalize Homelessness

A homeless couple rests in Hawaii. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EUGENE TANNER
A homeless couple rests in Hawaii. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/EUGENE TANNER

The mayor of Honolulu has declared a war on homlessness, but to many people, it looks more like a war on the homeless.

“We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell (D) wrote in an op-ed Sunday, defending his proposals to tackle the epidemic of homelessness. “It’s time to declare a war on homelessness.”

Among Caldwell’s initiatives is a ban on sitting or lying down on sidewalks. This proposal, specifically intended to criminalize homelessness, is currently used by a number of other cities to give police more tools to crack down on the presence of homeless people. Another proposal would prohibit public urination or defecation.

The city is also ramping up efforts to seize homeless people’s property and conduct sweeps to arrest them on charges as minor as park rule violations. According to Nick Grube of Civil Beat, Caldwell praised the effort, which the city spends $500,000 on annually, at a recent forum, calling it “compassionate disruption.”

The problem with these ideas is one of basic human nature. Just because a person is poor doesn’t mean he’s capable of standing all day or holding his bladder until he can afford a home.

The efforts are garnering widespread condemnation from homeless advocacy groups. Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, told ThinkProgress that “compassionate disruption” is “one of the most cynical catch phrases I’ve heard in a long time.” She continued, “There’s nothing compassionate about arresting people who have nowhere to go and ‘sweeping’ them away as if they are garbage.”

Though Honolulu is making some efforts to open more public bathrooms and provide housing support, its efforts are nowhere near enough to tackle the problem. For example, though Caldwell said homelessness was a top priority for his administration, his budget aims to get just 100 chronically homeless people into housing by the end of 2015. (By contrast, Washington D.C. was recently able to find homes for more than 200 homeless veterans in a span of just 100 days.)

Homelessness is an especially major problem in Hawaii. As the number of homeless people declines across the country, it is actually on the rise in Honolulu. Since 2009, homelessness is up nearly 30 percent in the city and has been rising every single year.

CREDIT: Nick Grube — Civil Beat
CREDIT: Nick Grube — Civil Beat

However, instead of tackling the problem with enough resources to get homeless people supportive services and into housing, Hawaii is developing a reputation for hostility towards its homeless residents, and it’s not just Caldwell. State lawmakers in the Democratically controlled legislature recently killed a homeless bill of rights bill that would have afforded legal protections to people living on the streets. And last year, State Rep. Tom Brower (D) openly bragged about roaming the streets with a sledgehammer to destroy homeless people’s possessions.

Caldwell’s efforts aren’t just “mean-spirited,” as Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, put it. His solution won’t work, according to Foscarinis. “It is a foolish waste of city resources to try to sweep away people who have nowhere to go,” she said. “What will work — and save money, and boost the economy — is investing in affordable housing and services for people who need them.”