Bus stop bill bans sleeping
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Waikiki residents are supporting a City Council bill to ban sleeping or lying down at bus stops to help tackle a persistent homeless problem in the state's No. 1 tourist destination.
"We've been getting all these complaints that bus riders can't use the bus stops because they're being populated by people sleeping there," said Bob Finley, chairman of the Waikiki Neighborhood Board, which voted unanimously to support the measure at its meeting last Tuesday. "We're not anti-homeless, but we feel people riding buses have the right to the bus stops."
The measure, introduced in April by City Councilman Rod Tam, is before the Transportation and Public Works Committee. Tam said he believes it will move out of committee this month and could go for a full council vote before the end of the summer.
The bill comes as more people are riding city buses to avoid soaring gas prices. And it follows a successful bid in January to ban aggressive panhandling near ATMs — a proposal that largely came out of complaints from Waikiki residents. Though Tam said the bus stop bill is designed to address an islandwide problem, he said its biggest impacts will be in Waikiki, Downtown and Chinatown, where there are larger pockets of the chronically homeless.
Advocates for the homeless fear the bill — coupled with the panhandling ban near ATMs — will further stigmatize the homeless and make their lives more difficult. They agree that a bus stop is no place to sleep, but say banning the practice is unnecessary.
'FIND THEM A SHELTER'
Bob Erb, founder of the Waikiki Beach Outreach Ministry, which feeds about 250 homeless people weekly, said the city should instead be thinking about ways to help the homeless.
"Let's find them a shelter so they don't have to sleep on the bus stop," said Erb.
Erb added it appears homelessness is getting worse in Waikiki.
There are no recent figures to back up the assertion, but between September 2006 and April 2007, Waikiki saw an increase of 49 homeless people — to 206 — according to a count conducted by University of Hawai'i students.
Meanwhile, shelters indicate they have space for more people, partly because of more facilities opening islandwide. The Institute for Human Services men's shelter in Kalihi is at about 75 percent capacity, with 150 men. There is space for about 20 more single women at the nearby IHS shelter on Ka'aahi Street, but the family shelter is nearly full.
Waikiki residents contend that a measure to prevent the homeless from using bus stop shelters as personal shelters is long overdue. They also say that spurring the homeless to move elsewhere might be beneficial.
"People may feel that some of these bills are insensitive," said Michael Peters, Waikiki Neighborhood Board secretary, "but what they don't realize is that by passing these bills, you're forcing the system to improve."
Finley said the Waikiki board didn't ask Tam to introduce the measure, but board members and residents have since thrown their support behind it.
Several bus users waiting at a stop last week near Kapi'olani Park also supported the bill.
But others had doubts.
"It's kind of irritating for them to be sleeping" at the bus stop, said Lexi Jack, 19. "But it's kind of mean to kick them out in the rain, too."
Tom Smyth, of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said many residents have expressed early support for the measure. He added that Downtown and Chinatown residents have been trying to address the issue for years, with no luck.
"It's a big issue for our board," he said.
In the last legislative session, state Rep. Karl Rhoads, D-28th (Kaka'ako, Iwilei), also introduced a measure aimed at addressing the problem. House Bill 2262 proposed changing the definition of disorderly conduct to include "impeding or obstructing the use of or access to a bus stop by laying across any bench ... at the bus stop or sleeping on the ground within or abutting any bus stop shelter."
The measure never had a hearing, though.
Smyth said the challenge of writing the city bill will be to make sure it doesn't violate constitutional rights and will stand up against potential lawsuits. Other cities have passed bans on sleeping in public or at bus stops, and some of those measures have since been thrown out.
Tam said the bill still needs work to make sure it will hold up against legal challenges.
He is also trying to address concerns voiced by the Honolulu Police Department about exemptions to the measure — people who are disabled, experiencing a medical emergency or are mentally incapacitated. Michelle Yu, spokeswoman for the department, said the bill would require police officers to determine whether someone is sick, mentally ill or disabled before citing them or asking them to move on, something they're uneasy about doing.
"The ordinance as written would be very difficult to enforce," she said.
The bus stop bill would prohibit "lying down or sleeping on a bench at a designated bus stop area" and "storing large, bulky bags or shopping carts in a designated bus stop area which will not be admitted on board a public transit vehicle." It also prohibits "occupying space within a designated bus stop area in such a manner as to block ... or interfere with a public transit rider's entry onto a public transit vehicle."
The bill proposes a fine up to $50 for violators.
City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi, who introduced the measure with Tam, said there needs to be a system in place so officers can crack down on people sleeping at bus stops. But she agreed the bill needs tweaking before it's ready for a full council vote.
"We hope to pass something just to make it so bus users will be able to take back their bus stops," she said, adding that she has gotten lots of complaints from people about the homeless sleeping at bus stops with no intention of riding the bus.
"The bus stops are for bus users," she said.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.