The Hawaii County Council is preparing to tackle an issue that’s generated a great deal of controversy in Honolulu — clearing public areas of possessions owned by homeless people.
The council Committee on Public Works and Parks and Recreation has scheduled Bill 193 for its 10 a.m. Tuesday meeting at the West Hawaii Civic Center. The public can participate there, or by videoconferencing at council chambers in Hilo, the Waimea council office, the county facility in Kohala, Hawaiian Ocean View Estates Community Center or the Pahoa neighborhood facility.
The bill, sponsored by Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, is one of several initiatives formulated by multiagency homelessness task forces on both sides of the island, said county Managing Director Wally Lau, who spearheaded the working groups. Others include retail stores voluntarily taking oversized containers of malt liquor and such off their shelves and having groups that include a social worker, prosecutor and police working one-on-one with specific individuals to help them get the help they need, he said.
“We’re trying to be firm, but be fair and considerate,” Lau said.
Lau and Kanuha contend the public has rights to traverse sidewalks and other public places without having to navigate around obstacles piled up by homeless people.
“Public property should be readily accessible and available to residents and the public at large. The use of these areas for storage of personal property infringes with the rights of others to use the areas for which they were intended,” reads the preamble of the bill. “Such inappropriate use of public property can constitute a public health and safety hazard that adversely impacts neighborhoods, commercial property, and the general welfare of the county.”
Others aren’t so sure that depriving homeless people of what few possessions they might own accomplishes anything.
“Taking their backpack is not really going to be the answer,” said Ray Wofford, executive director of Family Support Hawaii, which has a program working with homeless and runaway youth. “I would really hope they really think about what they’re doing and have a comprehensive approach to the problem.”
Wofford said mental health services, transitional housing and vocational training approaches are also recommended.
Kanuha had requested assistance from the administration after residents and business owners in his district asked for help. Several members of the public, however, in June disparaged his resolution asking the administration to help, saying the wording denigrated a group of people who either by choice, substance abuse or mental problems or just plain bad luck, landed on the street. Being homeless is not a crime, they said.
“This bill is aimed at balancing, addressing and clarifying two competing concerns. First, unattended personal belongings pose a threat to the health and safety of the public. It attracts vermin and it interferes with people’s safe passage in public right-of-way,” Kanuha said Friday in a statement. “On the other hand, owners of the unattended personal property have a protectable possessory interest in the property that they leave unattended because it may include important items such as identification papers, medication and clothing.”
Kanuha said the task force is working with Hope Services and others to explore the possibility of temporary storage of possessions while their owners go to work, look for work, have doctor appointments or in other circumstances.
Bill 193 requires people to remove their possessions from public property within 24 hours of receiving a written notice either in person or affixed to the property. Moving it from one public property to another won’t satisfy the removal requirements.
Items not removed will be impounded by the county, with the owner responsible for charges incurred in moving and storing the possessions. If a shopping cart is impounded, the county will notify the retailer to come pick it up. Items not claimed within 30 days will be sold or destroyed.
A similar ordinance in Honolulu hasn’t appeared to make much of a dent in the number of homeless people lugging their possessions through Waikiki or city parks and streets. The problem hit the national spotlight in November, when state Rep. Tom Brower, D-Ala Moana, Waikiki, got so frustrated with homeless camps in his district that he took a sledgehammer and smashed their shopping carts.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii came out in force against the 2011 Honolulu ordinance and vowed to watch it to ensure homeless people weren’t targeted.
“The ACLU remains very concerned about the measure’s true intent to target Hawaii’s homeless individuals because of their homelessness. The ACLU will monitor how the new law is enforced, including any attempt to use this new law to curtail 1st Amendment rights to free speech and/or assembly,” said Senior Staff Attorney Daniel Gluck in a statement on the ACLU website. “It is very disappointing that this vulnerable population continues to bear the brunt of the government’s power to eliminate them from public spaces. Instead, government should focus effort on the underlying causes of homelessness.”
Gluck could not be reached by press time Friday on the Hawaii County bill.
Homelessness in Hawaii County has actually dropped, according to the state’s most recent point-in-time count. The count, published in May by the state Department of Human Services, Homeless Programs Office, found overall homeless in Hawaii County decreased 9.7 percent between 2012 and 2013, and homeless families dropped 43 percent.
Chronic homeless, who have substance abuse or mental or physical illness or disability and who have been homeless for at least a year or have had four homeless episodes in the past three years, comprise 35.8 percent of the county’s homeless, according to the study.
Lau said he thinks the number of homeless has held steady, but there was a difference in how they were counted last year.