Council should sleep on it


POSTED: Friday, September 18, 2009

The City Council has justifiably initiated ordinances to prohibit overnight camping in city beaches and parks and is tailoring bus stop benches to keep them from being used as beds. It is considering a bill to ban sitting or lying down on sidewalks, but that will not make the homeless disappear, as the Council members would wish.

What to do about the homeless has puzzled legislative bodies since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a vagrancy ordinance in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1972. The Honolulu Council is looking at a 1993 ordinance in Seattle that was upheld by a 2-1 vote of a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Hawaii in its jurisdiction.

The Seattle ordinance prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks in the city's downtown area and certain other commercial areas between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., thus allowing them to sleep there at night.

The proposed ordinance in Honolulu would prohibit sitting or laying down at any time on all sidewalks. Dozens of homeless who were driven from sleeping overnight on beaches or parks now sleep at night on a sidewalk between Kapiolani Park and the Waikiki police station. Essentially, if the Seattle ordinance were applied to Honolulu it would have no discernible effect.

Attorneys for the homeless in the Seattle case conceded that “;the city may prevent individuals or groups of people from sitting or lying across a sidewalk in such a way to prevent others from passing.”; The court rejected the argument that the ordinance violated a person's “;symbolic”; free — albeit nonverbal — speech and due process rights.

Other cities have tolerated the homeless sleeping on sidewalks but others endure it.

“;We have come to the conclusion as a society that it is better to tolerate some of this than take away people's rights,”; explained William J. Grinker, New York City's human resources administer in 1988. “;Even if you could do something, the courts are clogged and the police overworked with serious crimes.”;

While shelters on Oahu have been erected by the state in recent years, many of the homeless have chosen to stay away from them. Nationally, many are suffering from mental illness, and others are addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Councilman Charles Djou introduced the bill because of concerns about how the homeless sleeping on Waikiki sidewalks is affecting tourism. Djou maintains that refusing to allow the chronically homeless to sleep on sidewalks would “;put the hammer on people getting the help they need.”;

Djou needs to cite a precedent where such tough compassion has actually worked.