“The whistling man leaves these,” Abraham Sadegh points to a handwritten note torn from a thick, yellowed chunk of cardboard.
The note, a hate-filled diatribe apparently directed against Sadegh’s faith, is one in a series of harassing acts from a fellow homeless man whom Sadegh says is trying to drive him away from a prime sleeping spot.
“Thursday, when I opened my eyes, my neck was under his arm and he was chewing on my fingers,” Sadegh said.
Sadegh came out from the shadows Tuesday to testify before the council Committee on Public Works and Parks and Recreation against Bill 193 that would allow the county to confiscate and sell personal property that is left in public areas.
After hearing a dozen people express their concerns, the bill sponsor, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, postponed the bill for more work. He said the bill isn’t targeting the homeless, but the dozen people who came to testify — all with concerns about the bill — seemed to disagree.
“We’ve got to be careful not to be too rough on these people because they just can’t handle it” said David Carlson, commander of the American Legion Kona Post 20, noting many of the homeless are disabled vets who are fragile. “Taking away their prized possession, as minimal as it is, is not helpful.”
Several said the bill is premature.
“You’ve got to give them a soft place to land before you cut their legs out from under them,” said David Schlesinger.
Several suggested alternatives, such as providing more affordable housing, allowing tents to be built in remote oceanfront areas and providing lockers at select public buildings. Some pointed out that the county has more than 8,500 potentially homeless families on a waiting list for Section 8 federally subsidized housing.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford agreed that tents might be a solution, at least temporarily.
“The Red Cross gives out tents when we have emergencies for people to live in,” said Ford. “Do I want to create a tent city? No.”
Under questioning from Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, officials from the Department of Public Works said the bill came about after the department found personal property in a driveway leading to a Kona baseyard. The department discovered there were no procedures in place for the county to deal with or remove the property.
In this case, the property, a cart with household and personal goods, belonged to a homeless man in a wheelchair who “hangs out” under a monkeypod tree across the street, said Public Works Director Warren Lee.
Many of the homeless on the Big Island find themselves washed up against public buildings like so much flotsam, where they take advantage of generous building overhangs to protect themselves from the elements. Others seek the relative safety of public parks or hide in overgrown road rights of way.
It’s when they leave their belongings behind, even temporarily, that they become a safety and health hazard, county officials say.
“We’re trying to tackle the problems in a holistic way, not a heartless way,” said North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff. “We all know we have to do more, and have to also protect our parks for the residents who use them and the visitors.”
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.
Sadegh, who has been sleeping on a bench at the entrance of the county building in Hilo, said he pays a storage company to store two suitcases full of paperwork from his past, a background he says includes imprisonment in his native Iran and stints in New York City, California and Canada before becoming a United States citizen.
Homeless about two years, he said he goes back and forth between the storage company and downtown, picking up his day things and his night things.
“Last night, you had a nice dinner. You spent time with your family. You slept in comfortable beds,” Sadegh told the council. “And then you came here to pass judgment on us.”