Camping law aimed at homeless takes effect
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By Mary Vorsino
Barring a mayoral veto, the city's new "illegal camping" ordinance will go into effect today, clearing the way for the city to move scores of homeless campers from Kapi'olani Park and other parks islandwide.
Police have not yet determined when they'll start enforcing the law.
But the urgency to do so continues to mount — especially in Waikiki, where dozens of homeless are sleeping nightly at Kapi'olani, one of the most popular parks on O'ahu and situated at the gateway to the state's No. 1 tourism destination.
"Having it go on at such a prominent park" is bad for the economy, City Councilman Charles Djou said yesterday. "Kapi'olani Park is in the heart of Waikiki. Waikiki is the heart of our tourism industry. Tourism is the heart of our economy."
In a letter dated today, Djou urged Mayor Mufi Hannemann to start enforcing the new law immediately — and to start enforcement at Kapi'olani.
Meanwhile, homeless service providers are worried about where the homeless in Kapi'olani Park and other parks will go if they're moved on. They say shelter space and homeless programs in the urban core are hard to find for some segments of the population (including homeless single women), though some shelters are reporting open slots for dozens of people, including families and homeless men.
The City Council unanimously passed the new illegal camping measure Aug. 22, nine months after the Hawai'i Supreme Court struck down a similar law that banned camping in parks. The court said the old law was too vague.
In the absence of the camping law, and with no set hours for Kapi'olani, police have had no grounds to kick people out of the park (and others with no set hours) at night as long as they weren't breaking other laws.
After the council approved the new measure — which the mayor has 10 working days to sign or allow to become law without his signature — city departments began reaching out to homeless service providers to explain the new park camping rules and to warn them of possible imminent enforcement.
Providers have in turn been notifying the homeless.
Les Chang, director of the city Parks and Recreation Department, said police will make the final decision on when to start enforcing the law. And for now, police said they don't have a firm date for enforcement at Kapi'olani or any other park, though they stressed they could start enforcement right away.
Chang also said the implementation of the law will likely be taken slowly at parks with encampments so that people can plan to move elsewhere. "We don't want to do it overnight," he said. "We need to be sensitive about people's situations."
Social service providers have long spoken out against the law, saying it targets a symptom of the homeless problem — not the problem itself. They also say kicking the homeless out of Kapi'olani will only drive them into other areas of Waikiki, which could present even more of a problem.
"I understand the rationale, but once again, we're dealing with the side effects of the problem rather than finding solutions to the actual problem," said Doran Porter, executive director of the Affordable Housing and Homeless Alliance, an advocacy agency and homeless service provider.
Porter said there is not enough shelter space to house the homeless presently living at Kapi'olani, and added that some of those in the park can't go to certain shelters because they have been kicked out in the past.
"I worry about some of the problems that are going to come out as a result" of the law, Porter said.
"The problem still remains: Where are these folks supposed to go?"
The Institute for Human Services, which operates two shelters in urban Honolulu, said it has no space for families at its facility on Ka'a'ahi Street. The same shelter is housing about 91 single women, and has space enough for nine more. The IHS men's shelter has space for about 100 single men.
Meanwhile, the state's Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, which started accepting homeless people again after a several-month lull when it was thought it would close, has no space for single homeless or couples.
There are about 150 at the shelter, 130 of whom are singles or couples.
The shelter has space for about 15 families, however.
Utu Langi, who manages the shelter, said the need for shelter options for singles is increasing, especially as more homeless are being driven from parks. Providers have said that most of the homeless at Kapi'olani are singles.
The American Civil Liberties Union is also eying the new camping ordinance, and has come out against it at City Council meetings. In testimony to the council on Aug. 20, ACLU-Hawai'i Legal Director Lois Perrin said the law is "fraught with constitutional deficiencies and is certain to invite legal challenges." She also called the measure "bad public policy."
ACLU staff attorney Laurie Temple said yesterday that the agency will continue to monitor the measure and ask those cited under the law to contact the ACLU.
"Our lawmakers have failed in their duty to offer solutions to homelessness in our communities by passing this bill criminalizing homelessness and exacerbating the problem," Temple said.
But Chang, of the parks department, said he takes issue with those who contend the law targets the homeless.
"I feel very sensitive when people say we're trying to pick on the homeless," Chang said in a recent telephone interview. "This is a no camping law. It is not a no-homeless law."
Johnny Brannon, spokesman for the mayor, could not say yesterday whether the mayor would sign the measure or allow it to become law without his signature. It is unlikely Hannemann would veto it, observers say, since it was his administration that drafted it and pushed an islandwide campaign to clean up and reclaim city parks.
The new measure was written with the help of University of Hawai'i constitutional law professor Jon Van Dyke, who looked at similar measures across the country in drafting the new law. He said the old camping measure was struck down because it was overly broad and vague. Under the old measure, for example, someone could be cited for a daytime nap.
In crafting the new law, Van Dyke said, the city needed to tailor its definition of illegal camping to the "activity that creates a problem," with as few ambiguities about how the law would be applied as possible.
The old law defined illegal camping as using a public park for "living accommodations" without a permit. But the new law defines illegal camping as using the park as a "temporary dwelling place" between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Also, illegal camping under the law must also include using a park as a "sleeping place," which means setting up some sleeping material and intending to spend the night.
"What we were trying to do was to be as clear as possible so that a person who simply falls asleep out of fatigue or inebriation would not meet the definition. There has to be something that you are sleeping with," such as a tent, pillow, bedroll, cardboard or newspapers, Van Dyke said.
Reach Mary Vorsino at email@example.com.