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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 20, 2006

City still sugar-coating homeless eviction

By David Shapiro

Dozens of homeless people evicted from Ala Moana Beach Park marched to City Hall in March to take their plight to the mayor.

Advertiser Staff photo

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Mayor Mufi Hannemann's administration has shown a boundless capacity for putting a happy face on its heartless eviction of some 200 homeless people from Ala Moana Park last March in the middle of one of O'ahu's worst rainstorms ever.

The administration was slapped down again over the incident last week when the city had to pay $65,250 to settle lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union over the heavy-handed treatment of homeless advocates who protested the Ala Moana evictions at Honolulu Hale.

But in a joint statement with the ACLU announcing the settlement, the city was so lacking in contrition and so full of self-congratulation that you would have thought Mayor Hannemann had been handed an award for service to the homeless instead of a costly rebuke.

Most disappointing is that the ACLU let the administration get away with such blatant sugar-coating after fighting the case this far.

Hannemann displaced the Ala Moana homeless by closing the park at night when he started a cleanup before his Honolulu centennial bash at Magic Island. The evictions came as O'ahu was being battered by a month of heavy rains that were among the worst in local history.

While the mayor insisted that the homeless were primarily the state's problem, not the city's, he didn't see fit to notify the state of his planned Ala Moana cleanup to give agencies reasonable time to make other arrangements for the displaced homeless.

Critics accused the city of acting precipitously to avoid negotiations that might have delayed plans to clear the homeless out of the park before the centennial festivities.

When angry homeless people and their advocates set up camp at City Hall to protest the abrupt evictions, homeless workers Utu Langi and Julia Matsui Estrella were arrested for trespassing, leading to the ACLU lawsuits.

Ultimately, churches housed the displaced Ala Moana homeless while the state finished work on a Kaka'ako shelter.

The events of March are still being felt today; an organizer of a rally for the homeless at Ala Moana Park over the weekend said she was moved to activism by the City Hall protests.

In the settlement with the ACLU, the city agreed to compensate Langi, Estrella and others for infringing on their right to free speech, cover the ACLU's legal fees, better train police in the use of trespass laws on public property and consult with the ACLU to assure fair access to City Hall grounds for activities protected by the First Amendment.

But the joint statement lacked any expression of regret by the city for the March fiasco. "We welcome any and all peaceful demonstrations on the grounds of City Hall," said Hannemann's personal spokesman, Jeff Coelho, as though nothing wrong had happened.

Nearly half of the joint release was devoted to the city congratulating itself for participating in various projects to help the homeless.

Most outrageously, Coelho repeated the Hannemann administration's preposterous after-the-fact contention that the mean-spirited Ala Moana evictions were intended to serve the homeless by prodding the state into action on transitional housing.

"Our move to clean our parks has provided the needed catalyst for much more meaningful action on the part of the state to address the homeless issue on our island," Coelho said.

Gov. Linda Lingle has rightly called such claims "pure shibai," noting that substantial efforts by her administration and the Legislature to step up assistance to the homeless were under way long before the city's callous action at Ala Moana Park.

Evidently, the mayor and his minions think that if they repeat the shibai often enough, somebody might believe it.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.