STOOLS REPLACE BUS STOP BENCHES
Homeless face new city tactic: bus stop stools
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
In response to increased complaints about homeless people sleeping at bus stops, city officials have been replacing long benches at stops in the urban core and Windward O'ahu with round, concrete stools.
Homeless people sleeping at bus stops is not a new problem, officials with TheBus say, but rather one that has become more visible as more people ride the bus.
Ridership is up significantly — about 5 percent in September over year-earlier figures — as commuters try to save money and skirt high gas prices.
So far, the city has spent about $11,000 on the seating initiative, removing benches and installing 55 stools at 12 bus stops in urban Honolulu and Kane'ohe. Wayne Yoshioka, city Department of Transportation Services director, said the city will continue the program on a "case-by-case" basis in response to rider complaints.
"The benches were being used as makeshift beds by many people that were out there," Yoshioka said. "In an effort to provide areas for people to sit, but still discouraging people from sleeping, we started replacing benches with stools."
He added the issue is a "delicate one" that requires sensitivity toward the homeless who are being displaced from stops.
"It is successful. It does seem to deter sleeping at the stops," he said, adding that whenever benches are removed, a city Department of Community Services employee is present to offer help to displaced homeless people. "We're really trying to maintain sensitivity."
Bus riders are praising the program, which comes as city buses — and bus stops — are fuller than ever. Terra Murata, 31, a frequent bus rider, said she often sees people sleeping at stops, preventing bus riders, including seniors, from sitting.
"It's rude they don't move for the elderly," said Murata, while waiting at a stop on Kapi'olani Boulevard fitted with the new stools. The stop has four stools under a bus shelter and two nearby concrete benches designed for sitting only.
But Alex Hoopes, 46, said he isn't convinced the stools are the answer. He said he understands the frustration with people sleeping at bus stops, but he adds that the stools are uncomfortable.
"I would say benches seat more people," Hoopes said, as he sat on one of the new concrete stools at a bus stop on Kapi'olani.
PUSHING OUT THE POOR
Advocates say the new initiative is the latest in a string of city policies designed to push the homeless out of public places. They point to rules that close some parks at night or ban overnight camping in parks, along with an ordinance passed this year that prohibits aggressive panhandling near ATMs.
The City Council is also considering a ban on sleeping or lying down at city bus stops, though that measure has been stalled for several months.
For its part, the city says its effort to reclaim everything from parks to beaches to bus stops is about making sure everyone has equal access to public spaces. City officials acknowledge that the homeless population in the Islands, which advocates say could increase in the worsening economy, is one of the most hard-to-solve social problems facing the state. But they also contend that the city has a duty to make sure public spaces can be used by all.
Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, disagrees with the city's approach, saying it's dealing with symptoms — not the problem.
"It's unfortunate that some of this energy isn't being spent on finding solutions first," said Porter, whose agency advocates for more affordable housing and runs centers around the island that provide services, food and toiletries to the homeless. "It feels like we're trying to criminalize homelessness. The problem is that it exacerbates our job. You drive them (the homeless) into hidden places. They're going to be driven under bridges, into alleys."
Porter said the bus stop effort coincides with an increased need at his agency's drop-in centers.
Though it's hard to tell whether homelessness is increasing overall, because no recent counts have been conducted, advocates say they do expect the nation's declining economy to drive more people onto the streets.
The city's approach to keeping people from sleeping on city bus stops is nothing new.
Cities across the country and around the world have employed similar measures, and some city benches are already designed for sitting only, including the dozens of benches that surround the Kapi'olani Park pavilion.
City bus officials also point out that some bus stops have long had "sitting-only furniture."
Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, said cities should concentrate more on providing shelter and services for the homeless and less on moving them from bus stops.
"It's a misguided effort," he said, of the Honolulu initiative.
Advocates say most of the people who sleep at bus stops are chronically homeless who have been on the streets a year or more and may have mental-health or substance-abuse problems that have not been addressed.
Though there is shelter space available in the urban core for single people, providers point out that not all homeless are interested in sleeping in a shelter.
The Institute for Human Services, which operates two emergency shelters in Kalihi, has space for about 80 at its men's shelter on Sumner Street. Its shelter on Ka'a'ahi Street has space for about 10 more women and a few more families.
Kate Bepko, spokeswoman for IHS, said the agency understands the reasoning behind replacing city bus benches with stools.
"We understand the city's intent to provide a resting area for bus riders," she said. "IHS hopes the new seats might encourage homeless individuals to seek shelter."
Yoshioka added the issue is by no means an easy one. Homeless people sleeping at bus stops "is a problem for bus riders," he said. "But we need to show some sensitivity to these folks who are out there having a problem."
The city has replaced benches with stools at stops on South King Street, Kapi'olani Boulevard and Kaheka Street in the urban core, along with Hui Iwa Street and Kane'ohe Bay Drive and Miha Street on the Windward side.
MORE TO COME
Yoshioka said he could not say where the city would concentrate next with the initiative, which started earlier this year, but officials pointed out the 12 stops with new stools represent a fraction of the 4,000 bus stops on O'ahu.
Roger Morton, president and general manager of Oahu Transit Services, which operates TheBus for the city, said bus riders have a right to expect seating at stops. He added that seating is at a premium these days with buses so full.
Last month, city buses provided some 6 million rides — an increase of about 300,000 from September 2007. As more people ride the bus, Morton said, complaints about people sleeping at stops have gone up dramatically.
"We get quite a few" complaints, he said.
He said transit authorities across the country are increasingly buying "lie-down-unfriendly furniture" to keep seats open for bus riders.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.