Honolulu homeless move tents onto sidewalks in legal loophole
• Photo gallery: Homeless on sidewalks
By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
In the wake of a ban on tents in city parks that police started enforcing Monday, more homeless appear to be setting up camp on sidewalks — something the city says is legal as long as they don't block pedestrian traffic.
Yesterday, several advocates and urban Honolulu residents said they had noticed more people living in tents or makeshift shelters on sidewalks recently. But advocates also pointed out that the ban prompted a good number of people to move into homeless shelters or to get on waiting lists for shelters.
Small tents and makeshift shelters were spotted on sidewalks in Kaka'ako, Makiki and along Kapi'olani Boulevard yesterday, and advocates say it appears some of them were recent arrivals. In Kaka'ako, there were about a dozen tents on a stretch of sidewalk down the street from the University of Hawai'i's John A. Burns School of Medicine.
Several homeless in Kaka'ako said they camped on the sidewalk not knowing whether they were allowed. But when police patrols didn't move them out, they stayed. And, they said, other homeless moved in when they saw that tents were popping up.
John Kaulupali, 51, has lived in a tent on the sidewalk in Kaka'ako for approximately six months, and said that in the past week he has noticed more people setting up in the area. He said most people leave during the day and return at night. And he estimates that as many as 60 people sleep in the area now.
"Since I've been here, more people" have moved in, he said.
Setting up a tent on the sidewalk is not in itself illegal, but obstructing a sidewalk is. The homeless appear to have stumbled upon a loophole in the law by setting up tents, mats or makeshift shelters so that they don't block the entire sidewalk.
"If I can get by, then someone is not obstructing the sidewalk," said Bill Brennan, city spokesman. In a statement, city Managing Director Kirk Caldwell added that the city will take action "regarding anyone's structure or personal property that inappropriately obstructs public mobility or access to public spaces."
He also urged people concerned about homelessness to support "real and permanent solutions. As these challenges continue to evolve, the city is exploring a range of options to assist the needy while protecting public health and safety."
The sidewalk issue is the latest wrinkle in a years-long push to tackle homelessness and related problems, and particularly to try to stop people from setting up encampments in public areas.
The city has so far largely focused those efforts on city parks, and on Monday officers started enforcing arguably the toughest measure yet to deter homeless campers — a ban on unauthorized tents and shopping carts in parks islandwide.
From Monday to Thursday, officers issued three citations to violators of the bans, Honolulu police said yesterday. Meanwhile, 84 warnings were issued.
More homeless people setting up on walkways as a result of the bans could reignite a debate on whether to outlaw sleeping on sidewalks. Last year the City Council tabled a measure to ban sleeping or sitting on sidewalks, after hearing concerns from the American Civil Liberties Union and advocates for the homeless.
City Councilman Charles Djou, who introduced the measure, said he still supports a ban and thinks the council should take it up again. He added, though, that council members probably wouldn't reconsider the ban until this summer.
"I think this is something we need to do," he said.
Several advocates yesterday said they also were seeing more homeless on sidewalks. Utu Langi, whose nonprofit manages the state-funded Next Step shelter in Kaka'ako, said his outreach workers have helped 10 people who moved onto the sidewalks in Kaka'ako because of the tent ban get into homeless shelters or start the process. Right now, Next Step has no room, he said.
The emergency shelters run by the Institute for Human Services do, though. Yesterday its men's shelter on Sumner Street had space for about 75. Its women's shelter on Ka'aahi Street had space for 25. IHS also has room for one family.
Connie Mitchell, IHS executive director, said more people are coming in for shelter following the tents ban.
"We're trying to get the word out," Mitchell said.
But, she added, she has seen "more people on the sidewalks."
PLENTY OF SPACE
Homeless camper John Croke, 40, has been sleeping in a tent on a Kaka'ako sidewalk for about a month, after moving from a sidewalk in Kalihi. He said more campers have been moving into the area, where the sidewalks are fairly wide.
But he added that many of the campers are transient, and also stay at other places.
Croke became homeless about a year ago after being laid off from his construction job.
"I lost everything," he said, adding that he isn't hurting anyone by sleeping on the sidewalk. "We need a place to stay, too," Croke said.