COMMENT ON THE SIGNING OF BILLS CRIMINALIZING HOMELESSNESS IN HONOLULU

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We cannot criminalize our way out of an affordable housing crisis. But that is now the City’s plan. The City Council passed, and Mayor Caldwell has today signed, Bills 51 and 52. These expand on failed policies that cost taxpayers millions of dollars and accomplish nothing to address the root causes of Honolulu’s escalating affordable housing crisis.

The City has ignored the opinions of the courts, researchers, harm reduction specialists, and community advocates, and has turned a blind eye to heartbreaking testimony in opposition from the very Hawai’i residents the City sweeps on a daily basis. As a result these bills—pending City Council acceptance of a report by the City administration—criminalize the unavoidable consequences of being unable to afford housing in Honolulu. Acts as innocent as sleeping in a park or simply being on the sidewalk while appearing homeless will, pending acceptance of the City’s report­–now be a crime.

The Mayor claims homelessness is down, and shelter space is available, but the data shows otherwise. After five years of almost daily sweeps, the number of unsheltered people on Oahu has increased by almost fifty percent, while the amount of shelter available has drastically decreased to the lowest levels since 2009. The Mayor claims people choose not to go to shelter, but the situation is far more complex: What most housed people likely do not know is that Honolulu shelter stays often come with fees people cannot pay, time limits for the number of nights you can stay, and a critical lack of family shelter that makes them unavailable for many of our most vulnerable residents – often kupuna, keiki and the medically frail. People are swept, shuffled, and end up back on our streets with no place to go. This is not compassionate. It is just disruptive. It’s also illegal, expensive, and doesn’t work.

While the ACLU of Hawai’i supports comprehensive, neighborhood-by-neighborhood plans to meaningfully house and help people without shelter, these bills are simply wasteful, inhumane, and violate fundamental rights.

Absent the compassion of the City, we have the Constitution to protect our most marginalized voices. Making it a crime to rest on public places or being in the sidewalk while homeless constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and similar laws have recently been struck down by the same federal courts that oversee Hawai’i. Before continuing down this path and allowing these measures to go into effect, we hope the Council and City administration will work with the housed and unhoused communities around the island to find  more permanent solutions to housing insecurity than sweeping people from place to place.

The real answer to our worsening housing crisis lies in aloha and coming together as a community, not in sweeping people off our islands. We need housing, not handcuffs.

 

 

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