Friday, July 18, 2014

Honolulu's War Against the Homeless

            A war is raging on Oahu. Months ago, Honolulu mayor Kirk Caldwell declared a “war on homelessness.” “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city,” he wrote. The mayor picked his words very carefully. Caldwell has picked up on the rhetorical “war” against an abstract problem reminiscent of another rhetorical war declared many years ago.
            Fifty years ago, in a State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. His speech marked the beginning of a blitz of legislation designed to eradicate the conditions that put Americans in dire economic straits. It led to the Head Start program, Job Corps, the Upward Bound program, Medicare and Medicaid, and food stamps.
            Fifty years later we have Caldwell’s war—and although the rhetoric is the same, there are vast differences. And that’s too bad. A war on homelessness could further Johnson’s dream. Back in 1964, he said that “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.”
            Surly Caldwell could have used the fiftieth anniversary of Johnson’s declaration as to revive the optimism from 1964. We could use this as an opportunity to work on eradicating the conditions that result in homelessness, not just the homeless. It could be focused on working closely with communities, mental health providers, and other factors that contribute to the homeless population in Hawaii.
            But that doesn’t seem to be happening in Honolulu. The homeless are an eyesore. That’s what’s troubling the mayor there. In an interview with the New York Times, Caldwell defended these tactics.
            He said that we “haven’t eliminated the visual impact of homelessness.” Caldwell said that when tourists come to Hawaii and stay in Waikiki, “they don’t want to see homeless people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks or on the beach.”
            It’s hard to argue against that. I’m sure people who spend all that money to fly here and stay in a luxurious hotel don’t want to see folks with no place to go sleeping on benches or in the park. Public parks are closed at night and the police sweep through to make sure the homeless aren’t near Waikiki.
            The other sensitive spot is Chinatown and Downtown. The City Council declared the area from Nuuanu Stream to Ward Avenue to be “the center of Oahu’s art scene and is a hot spot for Oahu nightlife, with live music and shows, as well as some of Hawaii’s most contemporary restaurants and gathering spots.” In the last decade Chinatown has become a gentrified hot spot with plenty of galleries, shops, and eateries.
            After all, who wants to have to tip toe around people trying to sleep in doorways or along the sidewalk on their way to check out the latest restaurant or bar? First Fridays in Chinatown are wildly popular and all those homeless people would just dampen the party atmosphere. It might just make all those partygoers feel uncomfortable on their way home.
            So instead of lofty legislation designed to study the issue and alleviate the causes contributing to homelessness, the City Council is mulling over two bills punishing the homeless. One bill criminalizes defecating and urinating in public. Ironically, it would also criminalize peeing in pools or in the ocean. Watch out, kids. If you’re caught peeing in the pool or trying to reenact the infamous Baby Ruth scene from “Caddyshack,” you may be prosecuted, face a judge in the district court, and could face up to thirty days in jail and a $1000 fine.
            The other bill is even more troubling. It would make sitting or lying on a public sidewalk a crime. Of course, there were a number of exceptions that would allow people to watch parades or standing in a line for “goods or services.” Nowhere in the bill or in its legislative findings was the word “homeless,” but everyone knows the true target of these bills.
        On the other hand, these aren’t the only efforts by the City. In addition to these controversial bills, the Council authorized $47 million to set up low-cost housing. Moreover, the governor has recently appointed a coordinator to work with the city government, the State, and the private sector to get folks out of the elements and into a shelter or some kind of housing.
            In that sense, Caldwell’s war on homelessness bears some resemblance to the old War on Poverty, but the new tactics against the homeless themselves are an extreme. Johnson declared a war on poverty, not the poor. Seems like these days we just want to sweep away homeless people along with homelessness.

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