HONOLULU — In a state with a growing homelessness crisis, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell visited an Oahu canal lined with tents sheltering homeless people to sign a bill banning camping on the banks of city-owned streams.
But Caldwell vetoed a bill Wednesday that would expand the ban on sitting and lying down in public to more pedestrian malls, citing legal concerns.
Honolulu first banned sitting and lying down in the visitor hotspot Waikiki last year after tourists complained about too many homeless people around the beach. The city gradually expanded the ban to more business districts when business owners and council members in neighboring districts complained that homeless people were moving into their neighborhoods.
Caldwell championed the city's first so-called sit-lie ban, but he has tried to push back on expansions that take the ban beyond business districts. He says banning reclining on sidewalks during business hours is legally defensible, because pedestrians and business owners are impacted when those sidewalks are blocked. But the bill Caldwell vetoed Wednesday would extend the prohibition to pedestrian malls that aren't lined with businesses, and it would extend the ban in some places beyond normal business hours, which leaves the city open to litigation over targeting homeless people, Caldwell said.
"I think it opens it up for a challenge that we would have a hard time defending," Caldwell said. "So I'm very troubled by this...they've gone too far in my mind."
City Council Chairman Ernie Martin has indicated the council is likely to override the mayor's veto, and that the council has enough votes to support an island-wide ban on sitting and lying down.
Critics say the sit-lie bans have made Oahu's homelessness problems worse, because people who are living out of tents and makeshift structures are just being pushed around to different neighborhoods, making it harder for them to get back on their feet. Service providers who help homeless people access health care and apply for housing have complained that they're losing track of clients who are constantly moving around.
At the Kapalama Canal Wednesday, Sonny Bermudez was visiting a friend who lived in a tent he erected out of steel rebar and tarps while Caldwell signed bills across the waterway.
"They have to find somewhere to go, but where?" Bermudez asked.
If people can't stay with family members, they can go to a shelter, but some shelters cost $90 a month, Bermudez said. "Only some of them are working. They don't have much cash," he added.
The city had enforced a law Tuesday that prohibits keeping stored property along the canal, so it had been cleared, but dozens of tents were back along the waterway Wednesday. The new bill Caldwell sign would target people, not belongings, Caldwell said.
"Under the bill I'm signing, the Police Department can drive along here and get out and say you're in violation of this law," Caldwell said. "You cannot have a structure along this embankment. You must move it."
People then understand they can be arrested and fined, so they move, Caldwell said.
The city also plans to erect a chain-link fence along the canal banks to prevent camping, at a cost of about $240,000, he said.
The council's rationale for the streams ban is that camping along a waterway creates public health and safety hazards. The bill states that people could be swept away by sudden floods, or waterways can become contaminated if people urinate, defecate or bathe in the streams.
The legal concerns don't apply to the camping ban bill, since that bill isn't a sit-lie ban, said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, Caldwell's spokesman, in an email.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness says Hawaii has the nation's second-highest number of homeless people per capita in the nation.