Monday, August 18, 2014

"Enforcement tools" as "encouragement": More on the criminalization of homeless on O`ahu

                               [Photo by Krystalle Marcellus]

Beneath this photograph, which is in equal parts amusing and unhelpful, today's Honolulu Star-Advertiser contains a front-page story, "Visitor industry pushes for more help from city," that explains why, at a recent Civil Beat forum on homelessness, the spokesman from Institute for Human Services (IHS) supported efforts to criminalize homelessness. These are Bills 42,  43, 45, 46, and 48 deferred by the City Council right before the primary election, now up for review again (redundantly so) on August 28. The first paragraph makes clear that funding for IHS from the tourist industry depends on the City Council's passing these bills. To help the homeless, in other words, you need to make it illegal to sit on sidewalks or urinate and defecate in public (in areas where there are no public restrooms, mind you).

I went to the Civil Beat panel at Fresh Cafe on August 14 to get better acquainted with the issues and personalities involved in them. On the panel were Collin Kippen, the governor's "homeless czar," Jung Yang, who works for the Mayor, and two men who've had experience running shelters, Jason Espero and Jerry Coffee of IHS. The moderators were Chad Blair and Gene Park. The room was packed with people: activists, homeless people, interested citizens like myself. The personalities were more compelling than the ideas, from Kippen's persistent flights of metaphor and analogy, Yang's more bureaucratic and defensive approach, Espero's earnestness, and Coffee's odd support for criminalization. One of Coffee's "theories" of homelessness is that it is like addiction, that there are cycles of addiction and recovery, relapse and further recovery. Nice theory, but where in it do we find any economic analysis; it would seem to take a village to recover from this problem, not one person with a substance abuse problem. I was so fascinated by this last panel member, for his self-unraveling remarks, that I looked him up when I got home, only to realize he is the son of a POW held in North Vietnam, a man who has authored a book titled Beyond Survival: Building on the Hard Times--a POW's Inspiring Story.

Make of that what you will. While Kippen was amusing the audience with his analogies about lauhala mats, holes, and the abyss; padding outside the wave; salmons and waterfalls and who gets to climb them; and the steep road we're on from which we fall, only to get put back on . . . the best information was provided by one of the questioners during the second hour. He referred to the way in which wages have flattened, but rental and housing prices have not. That many people who work cannot afford housing is true now, and will be more true in the near future. If the median price of a house on O`ahu is now $700,000, and developers are building 22 huge condo towers in Kakaako in the next few years for extremely high prices, then where will ordinary people live? That that sounds like a rhetoric question is evidence that the answers, too, seem only rhetorical.

There's Housing First, which is intended to house the "chronically homeless" first--these are the single men (mostly) who have mental health and substance abuse problems, those who will die on the streets if they're not helped soon. We were each given a lovely booklet about the Mayor's Housing First plans. Discussion of Housing First led to a quarrel with the panel over "stereotyping" the homeless as dirty drug addicts (Kathyrn Xian did a very good job of punching holes in this lauhala mat). I'd rather consider the groups without judgment, but it's clear that a lot of homeless families need immediate housing, too. Housing First passed the City Council, but has not been funded. And, while there are good ideas about micro-housing and other options, no one seems to know where they'll be located. And then there are these bills to criminalize homelessness. We're caught between a policy that is not being permitted to work, and one that will only hide the problem rather than address it in any practical, compassionate way. Brought up in discussion, but never addressed directly, were the developers currently making fortunes in Honolulu building condos largely for people who do not live here.

Which brings us back to the re-introduction of Bills 42, 43, 45, 46, 48 by Councilman Ikaika Anderson, chair of the Zoning Committee. According to today's Star-Advertiser, Anderson wants the criminalization bills to pass, and he complains about the Mayor's not doing enough to implement Housing First. Certainly, the tourist industry is playing hard ball with the council, demanding that these bills pass before they help to fund IHS. But theirs is the language of humanitarianism: "'Oftentimes, we see the visitor industry step up in times of crisis, like a tsunami in Japan, or the Philippines,' Egged said. 'It's more unusual to see it happen for a social crisis, but I think that everyone recognizes the magnitude of this issue for the community." (Rick Egged is the head of the Waikiki Improvement Association.) This after saying that seeing homeless people on the streets is bad for tourism (aka the economy, which trumps everything). Among the other problems, someone from Outrigger declares that the homeless are "not civil," because they steal towels panhandle, and block access to beaches.

Clearly, the people at the Waikiki Improvement Association and at IHS believe in "tough love." IHS's executive director, Connie Mitchell refers to the bills as "deterrents,"believing that when people are forced to move they realize that the shelter is not as bad of an option as they might have originally thought." Such is the "tough love" offered by local business and IHS, now tied together by way of a trade(?) of money for criminalizing the homeless. (Well, if you're not a criminal, you'd make the choice of going to a shelter, they are more than seeming to say.) But if "love" is, on the one side, the desire to make disappear in order to help business and, on the other, a desire to have people use your facilities (rumored to have bed bugs and less than kind staffing), then what is love's opposite?


Bill 42 prohibits sitting and lying on sidewalks in the Waikiki Special District . . .

Bill 43 prohibits urinating and defecating in public areas in Waikiki

Bill 45 prohibits sitting and lying on sidewalks throughout Oahu

Bill 46 prohibits urinating and defecating in public areas islandwide.

Bill 48 prohibits sitting and lying on the sidewalks during specific times in specific commercial and business areas within Chinatown, downtown, McCully-Moiliili, Waipahu, Kalihi and Kailua.

[from the Star-Advertiser, August 18, 2014]

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