After nearly six hours of testimony, the Honolulu City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee passed five controversial bills Thursday that would make it a petty misdemeanor to sit or lie on a public sidewalk, or go to the bathroom in public.
Much of the debate was focused on whether there’s sufficient shelter space to house those who have made it a habit to pitch tents on city sidewalks, and whether an islandwide ban on the practice would pass constitutional muster.
Tracy Martin, who lives on a sidewalk in Kakaako near the John A. Burns School of Medicine, told committee members he prefers to live outdoors because of what he characterized as unclean conditions at local shelters. He also said he and his family feel like prey because of ongoing sweeps related to the city’s current stored property and sidewalk nuisance laws.
"We actually feel hunted by the city and county, by sheriffs (and) by police," he said.
Despite at times emotional testimony from homeless advocates, the committee passed all five of the sit-lie bills, four of which now face a final vote next month when they go before the full council. Councilman Breene Harimoto was the only committee member to vote against four of the bills, saying they were morally corrupt. He voted yes on one bill that would outlaw going to the bathroom in public in Waikiki.
“They’re going end up in jail,” Harimoto said of the homeless who would be impacted by passage of the new laws. “How does having a criminal record now help them?”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell introduced two of the controversial bills in July, saying he wanted to bar the homeless from living on sidewalks or defecating and urinating in public specifically in Waikiki. However Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who chairs the Zoning and Planning Committee, introduced two additional bills to take the prohibitions across Oahu. That was followed by yet another bill by Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga that would extend the exclusions to areas zoned business or commercial.
Once the marathon committee session was over, Caldwell told reporters he would sign the bills introduced on his behalf should they reach his desk, but would consider the constitutionality of the remaining three.
"As long as they remain unchanged, I'll definitely sign those," the mayor said of his bills.
Earlier in the committee hearing, Managing Director Ember Shinn surprised many in the audience by announcing the city was actively pursuing a site for a so-called TMASH, short for Temporary Mobile Access to Services and Housing. The concept is being modeled after the successful Housing First program, but with tents and lavatories instead of brick and mortar.
“This is not going to be a tent city,” Shinn told reporters. “We will have services (and) providers on site 24 hours. We will have 24 hour security; we will have transportation (and) shuttle buses. We will have hygiene, bathrooms, shower, water (and) electricity."
Caldwell said the city is engaged in talks with the state about possibly using a parcel at Sand Island, but no decision has been made. He said the city plans on spending as much as $3 million to get the TMASH up and running.
"If we have to build all the infrastructure; we need to bring water, we need to bring electricity (and) we need to bring sewage, as you know that's more expensive," said Caldwell.
The administration is using $3 million in general operating funds to launch the Housing First program, and will transition clients from TMASH to actual apartments once they’re available. An additional $32 million for Housing First through general obligation bonds can only be used for infrastructure, and will take additional planning according to Shinn. Meanwhile, $12.2 million from the city’s Affordable Housing Fund has been set aside for 80 studio-type units in Waikiki and elsewhere that will also be dedicated to the program.
As part of the effort to stop the homeless from going to the bathroom in public, the hotel industry is working on a plan to keep the retrooms near the Waikiki police substation open 24 hours a day as part of a pilot project.