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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, April 14, 2005

Repeal of vagrancy law urged

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Out of work and no longer able to stay with a girlfriend, James Kualaau has been living at Ala Moana Beach Park for the past few months.

Kamaka Swann-Merit, left, 7, and Kaimana Swann-Merit, 6, both of Wai'anae, helped raise a troubling question about the status of the state's homeless population at a rally to help homeless families yesterday afternoon at the state Capitol.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

The days are not so bad, he said, but it can get rough at night, when there is constant worry of being messed with by other people or the police.

Kualaau was among dozens of activists who came to the state Capitol yesterday afternoon to remind lawmakers that the homeless are not invisible. They have names and faces and struggles and, as one sign read, they vote and are constituents.

"They should open their eyes and see what's going on," Kualaau said of legislators.

The rally, organized by the Rev. Bob Nakata of the Kahalu'u United Methodist Church, was to urge repeal of Act 50, a law approved last session that allows police to ban people from public land for up to a year. People who ignore the ban can be charged with second-degree criminal trespassing.

The Senate has backed a repeal and the House has supported reducing the criminal penalty. Legislators will have to work through the differences in conference committee before any legislation is approved.

Lois K. Perrin, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai'i, which has sued in federal court to overturn Act 50, said anger over the law has contributed to more awareness of the homeless. "It's just bad public policy and it's unconstitutional," she said. "I think it energized people."

The activists also want the Legislature to back a moratorium on police sweeps of the homeless from public areas, such as one in early March at One'ula Beach Park, where people had ignored warnings to leave.

A resolution urging a moratorium is pending in the Senate.

"Sweeps got to go!" shouted Utuloa Langi, program director for Hawai'i Helping the Hungry Have Hope, drawing cheers. "If I can remember correctly, sweeps only apply to trash."

Gov. Linda Lingle and Democratic leaders have made affordable housing a top issue for the session, but lawmakers have struggled with the complex nature of homelessness.

"There is not one fix for any group. They're all different," said state Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha).

Temporary solutions, such as allowing the homeless to live in parks or in tents on public land, raise health and safety questions.

Nakata has been blunt with legislators, telling them that the state has not done nearly enough. "The state policy on the homeless is to say, `Please go away and die,' " he said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.