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By Mark Brians. February 11, 2015 - 3:45 pm
The back and thinning hair of a man who is not the Mayor blocks my view of him, and I look away from the viewfinder on my smartphone to the reality of the scene unfolding before me in which Kirk Caldwell, Mayor of Honolulu, in a teal and taupe floral-printed collared shirt presides over a podium improvised by the presence of a microphone standing in a crowd of some estimated fifty people arranged by the news media to appear like a much mightier number.
On Wednesday, the Mayor held an open-air press conference on Union Plaza Mall to speak about the sit/lie statues which were passed this past December.
City council member Carol Fukunaga, the sponsor of the body of bills which made sitting and lying on public sidewalks, malls and benches a criminal offense, was not present at the event.
I had been too late to shake his hand, as he passed through the gathering spectators greeting them with a kind word of aloha. Now along with other passersby I was being herded by some retainer, who I assume was a part of the Mayor’s staff, into a position behind the mayor so as to look good for the camera.
“Don’t be shy” coaxed Caldwell, as nervous businessmen, HPU staff, and others from the financial and legal professions were bundled into position.
“I almost thought of canceling the press conference” began the Mayor. This was owing to the fact of Fukunaga’s absence.
But, he told the gathered throng, he couldn’t do such a thing after all of the hard work the council member had gone through to pass the laws.
After such tertiary comments, which are of absolute rhetorical necessity in political speeches, the Mayor delivered his apologia for the legislation. He cited instances of people tripping over other people on the sidewalk, and of people suffering harassment at the hands of the homeless who utilize public spaces for residence, as evidential proof of the necessity of the laws.
“It blocks people from moving about in commercial areas” he stated, adding that now the malls are “open to everyone.”
Unless, of course, you plan on sitting down or sleeping.
The sit/lie laws have been in place since the beginning of December. Since that time Honolulu Police forces have given 964 warnings, delivered 10 citations and made 3 arrests. More over, the City’s Department of Facility Maintenance stated that they have removed over 58 bins of an indefinite size, full of personal belongings of the houseless that used to litter the mall areas and sidewalks in addition to seizing 200 shopping carts.
And while the image of arresting a homeless person for sleeping on a sidewalk at night may seem to mark the nadir of institutional probity, the City Council of Honolulu and the Mayor’s Office are firm that their actions are in accordance with the best intentions for the welfare of all of the inhabitants of the city, including the houseless.
Coordinating movements with other organizational forces, including the non-profit sector, the Mayor assured the audience that this was a part of a much larger “housing first” solution for the houseless and the destitute. To this end representative figures from other city departments, such as City Parks and Recreation, spoke concerning the laws. Even Joe Young, the Honorary Mayor of Chinatown, was present and spoke, lending his sagacious voice in defense of the controversial measures.
“Compassionate disruption” said the Mayor, labeling the methodology behind the legislation.
After the Mayor finished with his comments, and after he had yielded the floor several times to the voices of acquiescence from other City departments, he shared the opportunity to any local business to voice their gratitude and support of the measure. Among those who did so was Hawaii Pacific University, one of the largest lease-holders in downtown Honolulu.
Many students, faculty and staff are intimately familiar with the presence of the houseless on Fort Street Mall and Union Plaza. Several in the HPU community have voiced their perceived sense of danger. Others, ostensibly, are more perturbed by the smells of urine and decay and by the overall charivari of the unhoused populace: some keeling over under the influence of some substance; others darting in a madcap way, muttering to themselves, shouting fragmented portions of English playwrights punctuated by expletives.
Whatever one’s personal sentiments may be, it also proves a problem for admissions. Numerous prospective student tours pass-by the groups of unfortunates and it can be a troubling scene, especially for mainland mothers who are preparing to send their children off to college, or for their husbands who are trying to decide which school they feel best about paying their child’s tuition, or co-signing their student’s loan.
Other businesses also feel the impact of the above community, and thus feel their support for the measures is justified.
As I listen to these numerous opinions, from lawmakers, law-enforcement, educators, non-profit leaders, and business leaders, my thoughts and my illegible handwriting are interrupted by a woman behind me.
I turn my head to see a small committee formed of three or four bedraggled individuals, one in an electric disability scooter. The woman in the middle continues her heckling, loud enough to be heard by the crowd, but not loud enough to warrant silencing.
“I don’t got a suit” she says in a thick Hawaii creole, “so my voice don’t matter.”
Turning to a sandaled man next to her, who stares hollowly from half-shut eyes and tries to calm her by placing his nicotine-stained hand on her shoulder, she adds, “It’s all politics… they don’t really care…”
True or not, it is her sentiment. As such it may be evidence of a deep and profound failure on the behalf of the City and County. A failure which is not so much a legislative failure but a relational one; a failure which one can make with all of the best and noblest sentiments in the world. If we were to suppose, for the moment, that everything about the legislation in question was carried-out with plenitudinous charity and legitimate self-disinterest on the part of the lawmakers (which is a big supposition), it seems that perhaps they’ve failed precisely where much welfare fails: the relationship between the lawmaker and the person the law is intended to assist.
If there is any vision of goodness in the seizure of shopping carts and the removal of houseless denizens from public places of commerce (and I’m not saying there isn’t), that vision has not been effectively communicated. That is the real concern over this bill. It might be too easy for me to say –given my degree in communication– but it seems the real problem is an acute lack of feeling misunderstood (on both sides) resultant from a profound lack of healthy communication.
It is hoped that in the midst of the whelming flood of voices, conflicting opinions, and contradictory messages, that our languages and subcultures are not so hidebound as to entirely preclude cohesive community. Wide-eyed worry incapacitates civic engagement. Hoping for the best, respect for our leaders, giving them the benefit of the doubt, even though it runs the risk of disappointment, while at the same time showing concern and compassion on the weak and the disenfranchised is the sober-minded approach.
Photos by Mark Brians.