OpEd: Criminalizing someone for being poor is wrong, immoral, and – under our laws and constitution –illegal.

This piece originally ran in the Honolulu Star Advertiser on Sunday, October 15 under the title “Homeless have the same rights as the rest of us”: http://www.staradvertiser.com/2018/10/14/editorial/island-voices/column-homeless-have-same-rights-as-rest-of-us/

By Joshua A. Wisch, Executive Director

I’ve spent time in Mother Waldron Park and Waimanalo Beach Park talking story with people who are unsheltered. I work downtown and speak with people who don’t have a physical roof above their heads. What I’ve heard from most of these Hawai’i residents is that they are working – often more than one job – trying to make ends meet. Many have children attending local schools. I’ve spoken with folks who have been to shelters, but were back on the street because they’d spent over 60 days there with no hope of transitioning to permanent housing available in such a short period of time. Ask yourself, if you lost your housing and had to live on the streets while working multiple jobs to make ends meet, would 60 days be enough time for you to get back on your feet?

A number of people directly affected by homelessness courageously came forward and submitted testimony in opposition to City Council Bills 51 and 52 last week.

Renee is a Radford grad and Air Force veteran. She hit hard times. She tried living in shelters, but was attacked in one, encountered bedbugs in another, and was kicked out of third for missing one meeting. She testified that she feels like “the city wants to get rid of us homeless letting us die on the street or kill ourselves.”

Mike graduated from Kaimuki school for adults. He testified that “[m]ore than one time I was working during the day doing construction work, and I came back, and everything I owned was gone: taken from Kakaako by police during sweeps. I had to start all over again.”

John, born and raised on Oahu, asks “why should I pay a fine for sleeping on my own island?” and notes that “I’m nobody. But I’m somebody too.”

Lee Cataluna’s recent piece, “Sidewalk Laws Should Be Fair To All,” reflected how some people understand our current housing crisis. I know some people see unsheltered communities on the sidewalks or by the side of the road and wish they would disappear or “finally” go to a shelter. We can all agree that sidewalk laws should be fair to all and being poor and unsheltered should not be criminalized.

Where we break with the arguments in Lee’s piece is when it compares Hawai’i residents to bulky item pickup and suggests that you have to be “soft-hearted” to find better solutions for our housing crisis.

People are people, period. Dehumanizing people does not help. And those people have civil rights the same as everyone else who calls Hawai’i home. Not more rights – the same rights.

The fact that our friends, neighbors, and ohana living unsheltered in Hawai’i are “somebody too” gets lost all too often. And it’s not a “soft-hearted” observation. It’s a legal observation, because every “somebody” has legal rights protected under the Hawai’i and United States constitutions as well as the laws of the State of Hawai’i. They don’t have more rights than everyone else, they have the same rights.

Let’s be honest about this. If I stand on a city sidewalk in my khakis and Sig Zane aloha shirt talking on my iPhone, no police officer is going to ask me to move. But if someone who is unsheltered, wearing clothing they got from Goodwill takes up the same amount of sidewalk, Bills 51 and 52 will be used as an excuse to toss that person away like Lee’s shag carpet. That means, effectively, that person has fewer rights than me, not more. And that is a civil rights issue we should all care about.