On Wednesday the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to advance two bills that could have a major impact on the city’s homelessness policy. One would make it illegal to obstruct public sidewalks. The other would ban camping in any public space. But a court case on the mainland may spell trouble for one of the bills.
Bill 52 would make it make it illegal to camp in public spaces like parks and sidewalks. It’s part of Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s program of “compassionate disruption” – combining outreach and assistance programs with enforcement sweeps of homeless camps.
Those camps are a common sight in parks and on sidewalks in many communities around Hawaii, especially in urban Honolulu. City and state officials have long struggled with how best to address the situation. This latest effort may be in legal trouble before it even becomes law.
A court decision from Boise, Idaho last week struck down a similar law. In that case, six current or formerly homeless residents of Idaho’s capital sued the city after being arrested for violating Boise’s ban on camping. They had been turned away from public shelters due to lack of capacity. One member of the group sought shelter at a religious institution but was turned away after failing to participate in certain religious practices.
The plaintiffs argued that - because no shelter options were available - their citations were a violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. A judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court, which includes Hawai‘i, agreed.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says the ruling won’t impact Honolulu’s proposed law. Bill 52 would not allow police officers to arrest or cite anyone for a violation of the camping ban if there’s no room at a shelter or if transportation to the shelter is not available.
Not everyone agrees with the Mayor’s assessment. Matello Caballero is the Legal Director for the ACLU of Hawaii. Caballero said the Honolulu bill is nearly identical to Boise's law. With approximately 2,000 homeless individuals and 200-300 available shelter beds in Honolulu on any given night, it may be difficult to avoid an outcome similar to that in Boise.
Bill 52 will need to pass one more vote from the council before the mayor can sign it into law.