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Honolulu City Council Seeks to Clean the Homeless Off the Streets

    By Mark Brians. September 17, 2014 - 1:54 pm

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Vision and blindness. The opening ‘alohamiletic’ delivered by Norman Nakanishsi, a local pastor, centered on the juxtaposition of these themes. Vision and blindness. It was an exhortation to the City Council of Honolulu.

The message closed with a small prayer and the the council was called to order at 10:38 a.m. on Wednesday Sept. 10. All nine members of the City Council were present and accounted for and the minutes were approved.

Some discussion was given about laws concerning the use and distribution of plastic bags in grocery and retail settings before the new law regarding biodegradable plastic bags was passed with nine in favor.

As the next body of legislation was brought to the table for discussion, Council Chair Ernie Martin stated that the time limit for each speaker would be limited to 3 minutes total for all the bills in the package. He stated that his reason for doing so was the list of more than 40 people who had signed up to provide public testimony regarding the legislation.

The proposed legislation centered primarily on sit-lie ordinances, which would prohibit sitting and lying on sidewalks. Included in these measures is the expansion of the definition of ‘sidewalk’ to include areas like Fort Street Mall and certain public areas in the Waikiki Special District. Also included in these measures is the prohibition of urinating and/or defecating in public.

The situation at first glance may seem clear:  Tourism is a loadstone of our economy, and it is in the best interest of that economic resource to clean the streets of the homeless. This certainly was the sentiment of the overwhelming majority of people present to provide testimony in support of the measure. Most were employed in the tourism industry in some way, from waitresses to professional lobbyists. Others were concerned members of the community.

But among the numerous aloha shirts tucked into oxford pleated khakis, and understated cashmere blouses, there arose one clerical collar encircling the faded sable of a well-worn collarino as the Rev. Steve Costa approached the pulpit. With one hand he held a folded bunch of papers, with the other he adjusted the microphone, bringing it down to his height.

He was the first to stand in opposition to the measures, which he referred to as a cruel “herding” of people and likened the criminalization of the homeless population to the anathematization of the leper colony on Molokai in the days of Damien de Veuster.

“Their freedom depends on ours,” admitted the small elderly priest with the jarhead buzz-cut before adding, “but the quality of our freedom depends on the quality of theirs …”

“[It] looks like it’s a done deal …” he concluded adding that he would “pray to God for compassion …”

Vice Chair Ikaika Anderson excused himself to get a refill of coffee.

As Rev. Costa made his way back to his seat, the next speaker was called to the podium. A tall, thin blonde in a dogstooth tweed jacket and classic Chanel pumps made her way elegantly to the front. She was representing a business along the main drag through Waikiki. She approved of the measures citing the “unsanitary hazard” of the homeless population who “solicit the business of our clients” as evidence in favor of the sit-lie laws.

The cornerstone of her argument was her story of seeing a malnourished homeless man with a malnourished dog begging for money.

“It was traumatizing … I was traumatized …” she declared stern and hot-breathed.

No mention was made about the traumatic affect malnourishment may have had upon the hungry man himself.

She was followed in quick succession by a series of business owners and lobbyists for tourist industries. They expressed a twofold concern: First, they were concerned for the well-being of their employees. Second, they claimed that the presence of the homeless in the Waikiki Special District hurt the tourism economy, both reducing how much tourists feel inclined to spend during their visit and inhibiting their return to the islands.

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And while it is easy to feel disinclined to agree with this sort of casuistry, it represents – at least symbolically – the real and gaining pressure many residents feel to make ends meet in one of the most expensive states in the union. As a father and husband myself, it is a hard argument to ignore.

But this litany of complaints against the homeless was cut short by four or five individuals who cited the lack of any study connecting violence in Waikiki with homeless and the violence inherent in nightclub and sex-industry settings as the source of much of the night-time violence in the area.

The laws, they claim are ineffective, expensive and punitive. The question of alternative places of residence was also raised. There are more homeless than there are beds in shelters for them to stay.

The City’s response was plans for the establishment of a transitional camp on Sand Island where homeless can be sent away from the tourist attractions until further progress can be made with their individual cases.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell has been on record with Hawaii News Now explaining the logic behind this tent development:

“We want to have an interim solution. So we’re looking for a place we can do permanent supportive housing in a temporary fashion.”

Possibly the most inculpating piece of evidence against the measures was brought forth by Hawai‘i resident Doug Matsuoka who brought forth evidence connecting key contributions in the Caldwell political campaign with lead lobbyists and/or clients in the tourism industry.

Matsuoka argues in a recent blog post, that this may be a part of the reason that “the mayor’s bills criminalizing sitting or lying on the sidewalk have marched through without much opposition from the Council … despite the fact that the mayor has been unable to present evidence of the efficacy of these sorts of ‘sit/lie’ [sic] bills.”

The Council approved the bills. Most voted in favor with a few exceptions.

Yesterday Mayor Caldwell signed them into law to the glad applause of several Waikiki business owners and tourism officials.

Photos by Michelle Loeken.