The homeless population has dropped by 83% over the past two years since a sit-lie ban went into effect, but some in Hawaii fear enforcement has gone too far
by Liz Barney, The Guardian
Aguirre Dick used to spend the night in the streets and parks of Waikiki, the jewel of Hawaii’s tourism industry. But now, every evening, the homeless man must ride his bike three miles from the beach neighborhood and ascend the cinder slopes of a volcano to sleep – or risk arrest.
The homeless population in Waikiki has dropped by 83% over the past two years, according to a local nonprofit that provides homeless services in the area. While many have been housed, others say they have simply been pushed out, with unwanted implications for the rest of Honolulu.
A 2014 law made it illegal to sit or lie on public sidewalks in Waikiki, a move championed by a worried tourism industry. Visitors to the islands must reconcile their idea of a Pacific idyll with the highest per-capita rate of homelessness of any US state, and until recently the prime example was Waikiki.
But as other neighborhoods seek to copy Waikiki’s example, critics are concerned that homeless people could be forced into a state of perpetual displacement.
“The police told me get out of Waikiki, but they keep moving us around,” Dick said earlier this month. He was worried by rumors that police would move him on from his new sleeping place along the Diamond Head volcanic crater. “They’re trying to bury us.”
Waikiki is renowned for its pellucid water, high rises and luxury storefronts.According to recent data, the mile-long seaside stretch accounted for $7.3bn in tourism revenue in 2015, or 42% of Hawaii’s total tourism spending statewide. It is also responsible, based on 2010 numbers, for more than 30,000 local jobs.
But homelessness in Waikiki was the number one complaint among tourists before the sit-lie ban, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority president, George Szigeti. “The sit-lie ban was needed in Waikiki,” Szigeti said, praising it for “virtually eliminating homelessness in most high-traffic areas”.
“If the tourism industry weren’t our number one industry it’d be one thing to argue it’s not a priority, but it’s a priority,” said Mufi Hannemann, president of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association. “As we make improvements in this area it helps the whole state of Hawaii.”
Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, has referred to these laws as a form of “compassionate disruption”, arguing they encourage resistant people to accept help from shelters. The laws were implemented concurrently with a $2m outreach program specific to Waikiki, over half of which was funded by donations from the hotel industry and private donors.
Certain housing was prioritized for people from the Waikiki area, and hotel security and police were encouraged to refer individuals to outreach workers before initiating legal action.
According to a spokesperson at the Institute for Human Services, a nonprofit that operates the Waikiki outreach program, 288 people were permanently housed over the past two years, many of whom had previously declined help. And more than 200 individuals were flown back to the mainland through a repatriation program that offered partial airfare assistance for mainland transplants with verified plans to reconnect with family members. In total, more than 60% of the homeless people identified by Waikiki social workers were connected with housing options.
But some fear enforcement has gone too far. Honolulu police have issued nearly 2,800 warnings and about 590 citations in Waikiki since the sit-lie bill went into effect in 2014, city spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke reported last month. A recent survey of 88 US cities with sit-lie bans by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty singled out Honolulu for its aggressive enforcement of sidewalk laws.
“Criminalizing behaviors associated with homelessness is counterproductive,” warned Matthew Doherty, executive director of United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness. “Rather than cycling people in and out of jails, or from one street to another, we need to focus on creating pathways for people to exit homelessness.”
“They make it easier to go to jail than to get off the streets,” said Tommy Childes, sipping vodka from a plastic McDonald’s cup. Childes, 48, said he is a veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was recently arrested for being within park boundaries five minutes after closing hours and said he has been arrested dozens of times for similar violations.
And not everybody feels they should have to leave. “They put pressure on us to go somewhere else, but I got more right to be here than any tourist,” argued Richard Gambino, 66, who has lived on the streets for seven years and said the law unfairly favors tourists.
Others have moved on to other neighborhoods – a major concern for Mateo Caballero, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. He is worried that without enough affordable housing, the law simply displaces people, pushing them farther away from much-needed services and resources and into places without the same kind of specialized outreach as Waikiki. “If the end goal is to reduce homelessness, it’s really not working,” Caballero said.
Honolulu now has sit-lie bans in 15 neighborhoods in addition to Waikiki and, thanks to lobbying by businesses, there may be more. The city also conducts routine “sweeps” of camps and belongings to enforce a law against storing personal property on public land.
In a seemingly never-ending game of ping-pong, sweeps shift homeless communities back and forth between neighborhoods. In Hawaii Kai, an affluent neighborhood of million-dollar marina homes to the east of Honolulu, residents have formed their own taskforce to address the arrival of a new population of homeless people, which the director of the group has attributed to recent sweeps in other neighborhoods. The group is advocating for legal campgrounds for the homeless – away from Hawaii Kai.
As officials field complaints from disgruntled residents across the island, the city continues to add to the list of neighborhoods scheduled for sweeps.
Last Friday, workers swept belongings from the sides of Diamond Head crater encampments into garbage trucks. Law enforcement officers watched to ensure homeless individuals remained outside the encampment, and away from Waikiki.
High on the slopes, empty dirt patches marked former campsites. Dick, the man who said he trekked up here every night to sleep, was nowhere to be found.
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