Honolulu has widened its ban on sitting and lying down in public places, despite a mayoral veto of the measure and outcry that it targets homeless people for the benefit of wealthy tourists.
The city council voted 6-3 on Wednesday to override mayor Kirk Caldwell’s veto of the expanded ban, which now prohibits reclining everywhere from sidewalks in the commercial parts of Waikiki to a canal bank where a tent city arose after the initial ban was enacted.
City lawmakers proposed the ban last fall, after tourism officials told them visitors were complaining about Oahu’s homeless population. The mayor’s spokesman, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, said at the time that Caldwell frequently received letters from tourists complaining about public drunkenness and urination.
Caldwell vetoed the expansion bill because he said it could open the city up to lawsuits that could undermine a less stringent version of the ban.
“If they make an argument that this legislation is based on targeting homeless, and not about commerce and business, then the whole bill is jeopardized,” Caldwell told reporters on Wednesday. He nonetheless promised to enforce the new law and defend it in court.
“We want to make sure that any bill that we pass, particularly when it deals with people’s civil rights, that we do things that are defendable,” he said.
The six members of the council who voted for the ban said it should be expanded to neighborhoods where homeless people have retreated.
“I ended up with a tent city on the banks of the Kapalama Canal,” councilman Joey Manahan told the Associated Press. “The public doesn’t understand why it isn’t already illegal to pitch a tent in downtown Honolulu.”
In testimony to the council last year Mike McCartney, president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said: “Waikiki has seen an influx of homeless individuals who sit and lie on the sidewalks, making it difficult for pedestrians to walk on the sidewalk or access businesses, which can create an unsafe and uninviting situation.”
Councilman Ron Menor, who voted against the expanded ban, warned that taxpayers would pay, should the city lose a legal challenge. He introduced a new proposal that would narrow the ban to commercial zones.
The council also introduced bills on Wednesday that would outlaw camping on the banks of city-owned streams, and that would expand the ban into more neighborhoods.
Two members of the council voted against the ban because they felt it wrongly addressed the issue of homelessness, with councilwoman Kymberly Marcos Pine saying of the ban: “It has just gotten out of control.”
The director of Hawaii’s Institute for Human Services, Connie Mitchell, has defended the ban, saying that in conjunction with a temporary housing program it is getting homeless people off beaches.
“People are coming into the shelter,” Mitchell told Hawaii News Now. “It’s working the way it’s supposed to.”
The penalties for violating Hawaii’s ban on sitting and lying in public spaces range from warnings to fines and, if necessary, forcible removal. There are also bans on visiting beachfront parks after midnight. The Honolulu police have made a point not to make exceptions for tourists.
“Police have to enforce the laws equally against everyone,” Van Dyke said. “They don’t target homeless in park-closure enforcements.”
Tourists facing citations can either plead guilty, usually by mail, or fight the charge in person. A failure to do so can lead to a criminal warrant for missing court dates. Ironically, some tourists caught up in legal hassles have said the trouble has discouraged them from returning to Hawaii.
In 2011, Waikiki tried to establish “safe zones” for homeless people away from tourists, modeling the law after a Seattle program . Caldwell has tried to address homelessness with a plan for a $42m Housing First program. That will not begin until later this year, and in the interim the city has developed a “transition center” on Sand Island .
Sand Island, known as Quarantine Island in the 19th century, was used as an interment camp for Japanese-Americans during the second world war.
“We have never promised we are going to solve homelessness, and I don’t think anyone who does is being honest,” Caldwell said in December. “But I think we can make a dent.”
Manahan and other council members think it better not to have a large number of homeless people in one location, and want to create a shelter and service center at a large facility owned by Hilo Hattie, a fashion retailer that filed for bankruptcy in February.