End the use of Oahu bus stops as camping grounds
The City Council is considering a bill to prohibit the homeless from using bus stops as overnight shelters.
Bus riders have been angry for years about Oahu's homeless camping at bus stops, and the City Council is considering a proposal aimed at ending the practice. Such an ordinance might be needed but would have to be carefully crafted to meet constitutional requirements.
A bill co-sponsored by Council members Rod Tam and Ann Kobayashi would prohibit homeless people from lying down or sleeping at bus stops and from bringing large bags or shopping carts to the stops. Violators could face $50 fines.
Some homeless people have been known over the years to have turned the stops into their permanent residences.
Any ordinance intended to end the practice will have to comply with a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that protects "freedom to loiter for innocent purposes." The ruling struck down a Chicago ordinance, targeted at street gangs, that made it illegal to "remain in any one (public) place with no apparent purpose."
The court essentially ruled that loitering is protected by the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment. The case has been cited by the National Coalition for the Homeless as protection of its clientele.
Discouraging use of bus stops as overnight shelters is needed as people are driven by high gasoline costs to use public transportation. Any effort to keep bus stops from being used as camping grounds should apply also to the mass transit stops of the future, which otherwise could become favorite domiciles for the homeless.
The Tam-Kobayashi proposal would exempt a person with physical or mental incapacitation, but city Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka pointed out that many of the homeless fall under that category. "Everyone thinks the intent of the bill is good," Yoshioka said. "It's a difficult topic because it's clear they shouldn't be there, and they're impacting our bus riders."
Other measures are available, including installation of armrests in the middle of benches, which has been effective in keeping the homeless from sleeping on benches in Fort Street Mall. Another deterrent would be the replacement of benches with circular cement stools, commonplace in Europe. Removing roofs from some bus stops has been suggested, but that would punish bus riders desiring protection from the elements.
One or more of those alternative measures should be considered before the Council decides on an ordinance that could be challenged in court. Action certainly is needed, but the Council should take care in determining which would be most effective and constitutionally sound.
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