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The city can’t arrest itself out of its homeless problem, and tourism and hospitality leaders need to work with the city and state to find smarter solutions.
Waikiki visitor industry officials say they are trying to raise $500,000 annually to work with the Institute for Human Services on alleviating the area’s chronic homeless problem, but in the meantime they want the City Council to pass a pair of contentious bills aimed at cleaning up the tourism district.
The Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee plans on Aug. 28 to revisit the bills, which would prohibit sitting and lying on sidewalks and urinating and defecating in public areas of Waikiki. The committee shelved Bills 42 and 43 on July 24 in part because some critics argued the proposals would criminalize homelessness.
Waikiki Improvement Association President Rick Egged said the industry’s commitment to working with the city will be made clear when discussion on the bills is reopened. He said once enforcement tools are in place to encourage homeless people to more readily accept help that is offered, the industry will join with IHS to create intensive services to help house the homeless.
“A team from IHS has met with visitor industry leaders and, based on the way that they have reacted, I’m very optimistic that we can get it up and running by Jan. 1,” Egged said.
Zoning Chairman Ikaika Anderson said feedback has been mixed since the bills were deferred to give Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration time to provide a definitive answer as to when it would implement its Housing First program, which aims to permanently house, and provide services to, Oahu’s most vulnerable homeless.
Anderson’s decision to reopen testimony on the Waikiki bills has given the visitor industry and IHS hope that they could soon have support for their plans. However, there is still concern that the effort could be derailed by the desire of some Council members, including Anderson and Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, to implement the laws islandwide and insist that the city be ready to provide enough housing for all of Oahu’s homeless.
“I do believe that the public urination and defecation bills pertaining to Waikiki and islandwide need to pass, but I’m also convinced that the administration needs to give the Council a definitive timetable for Housing First,” Anderson said. “It’s unacceptable when they tell us it will be implemented in August and a few weeks later we hear that it will be October at the earliest. The Council appropriated more than $47 million to implement an affordable housing and Housing First strategy, and I suggest that the mayor release these monies in a timely manner.”
Caldwell said the city is ready to enact prohibitions in Waikiki, where there are about 50 to 100 chronically homeless individuals sitting on sidewalks.
“On a recent count, there were 115 shelter spaces in urban Honolulu where people could go,” he said.
Caldwell added that insisting that the city implement the bans islandwide and wait until it can house all 5,000 of Oahu’s estimated homeless population is foolhardy.
“What we are left with is a problem that continues to fester with no additional tools to improve the situation,” he said, adding that he would be unlikely to sign islandwide bans since the city’s corporation counsel has cautioned that it could lead to litigation.
Egged said some people contend that homelessness hasn’t affected tourism given that visitor arrival numbers are still solid. But, he said, daily complaints from disappointed visitors have motivated the industry to take action.
Egged said industry leaders want to work with the city to keep at least one of the district’s public restrooms open for 24 hours. A variety of partners also want to fund IHS’ efforts to step up Waikiki street outreach, open a homeless outreach center in the community, and provide transportation to shelters, he said.
“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.”
Barry Wallace, executive vice president for hospitality services for Outrigger Enterprises, said the company supports setting limits for Waikiki’s homeless and plans to be one of the funders of the IHS plan.
Wallace said homelessness is marring Hawaii’s image as a safe destination and is frightening visitors and tourism workers alike.
“I think I speak for everyone in the visitor industry when I say that we all recognize that homelessness is the most serious problem that we face,” said Wallace, who also serves on the board of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, whose membership includes about 160 hotels and about 430 tourism-affiliated business members.
While the City Council debates what can be done, reports of homeless people defecating and urinating in Waikiki streets and hotel gardens, stealing towels and other supplies, aggressively panhandling, and blocking access to parks and beaches are growing.
“The kind of behavior that they are seeing here is not civil in anyone’s eyes and we need to give our police the tools to make something happen,” Wallace said.
Philip and Drene Levinson, who have been visiting Waikiki for about 40 years, couldn’t agree more. The San Diego couple said the increase in the homeless population over the past years has caused them to stop bringing their grandchildren on trips and to debate whether they should return.
“We have several friends and a family member that live on Oahu,” said Philip Levinson. “We will miss visiting them, as well as all the places we have enjoyed for four decades, but it is not an enjoyable experience anymore and we are concerned for our safety. In my opinion, the few homeless do not have the right to litter the sidewalks with their carts, bags, animals and harass the visitors.”
IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell, who plans to testify at an Aug. 28 Council hearing, said Waikiki laws need to be enacted to set a standard for community behavior and to encourage people to avail themselves of new shelter programs, such as rapid re-housing, clean-and-sober transitions and permanent supportive housing.
“Right now, I think the lack of any deterrent makes it easier for people to refuse services,” Mitchell said. “But beyond that, I do believe that leaving homeless individuals on the street makes them much more vulnerable to both being assaulted by people and developing some serious infections.”
Mitchell said new prohibitions would build on the effectiveness of the city’s stored property sweeps and police crackdowns, which have resulted in a slight uptick in shelter use.
“I believe 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,” she said.
Councilwoman Pine said she is philosophically opposed to the bills because implementing them could push Waikiki’s homeless into other districts. Beyond that, they don’t align with her image of the Aloha State.
“To arrest people who are sitting or lying down in their worst moment is just not the Hawaii where I was raised,” she said.
Marc Aoto, a 50-year-old Waikiki homeless man, agrees that the bills should not be passed since shelters don’t work for everyone and the new laws will make street life even harder for the sick and elderly.
“I just try to keep to myself, but they should not pass these bills. Some people are really sick and really old and have a hard time walking,” said Aoto, who said that he utilized a shelter in the past but left because he felt disrespected.
James McCourken, who battles addiction and has been homeless in Waikiki for several years, said the proposed measures are cruel, especially when paired with the ones that the city enacted previously.
“They took all my stuff five times, even my shoes and my seizure medication,” said McCourken, 29. “I’ve probably got about 87 contempts just for sleeping in the park. They told me to come to the sidewalk and then they cite me. There’s probably about 1,000 times more hassle than before. I wake up at 3 a.m. wondering where am I going to go. They are ruining me. No one is going to hire a man who can’t sleep at night.”