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Honolulu Police Keep Putting Homeless People in Jail

The city is flouting CDC guidance by continuing to dismantle homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic, though it does not have nearly enough shelter space.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

Just after 5 p.m. on April 21, Honolulu police spotted Cynthia Falcon, a petite, 65-year-old homeless woman, sitting on a bench across from the Alohilani Resort in Waikiki. The police said Falcon told them she didn’t want to go to a shelter, so they wrote her a criminal citation for violating the city’s stay-at-home order

It was the fourth time police had cited Falcon that month for violating emergency orders by sitting or sleeping around parks and other public places around Waikiki. Each citation generated its own court date. Some dates were later changed due to the coronavirus outbreak—but although a notice of the change was filed in Wahiawa District Court, no notice could be mailed to Falcon, since she has no known address. When police ran into Falcon again on around 7 p.m. on May 21, they arrested her for missing several past court dates.

According to Honolulu Police Department arrest logs, Falcon remained in jail until the next day. She was one of several homeless people brought to jail that day on bench warrants issued for failures to appear in court for past criminal citations. Since June 2016, Falcon has received 22 criminal citations for offenses ranging from entering a closed public park, petty theft, smoking in a park, and violating Honolulu’s sit-lie ordinance, a rule that prohibits people from sitting or lying on certain sidewalks and public places.

Although Hawaii’s chief justice has directed judges to work with police and prosecutors to reduce jail populations during the coronavirus outbreak, Honolulu police have continued to put homeless people in jail for petty, victimless offenses. Since April 21, Honolulu police have conducted at least 23 sweeps, citing, arresting, and displacing Honolulu’s homeless population in the middle of a global pandemic.

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance not to clear homeless encampments during the coronavirus outbreak when individual housing options are not available, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has continued to direct the city’s police force to carry out his “war on homelessness” by targeting areas where unsheltered people congregate and citing and arresting them en masse, a process Caldwell has called “compassionate disruption.” 

“We cannot let the homeless ruin our economy and take over our city,” Caldwell wrote in a 2014 opinion article.

On March 23, facing pressure from advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, Caldwell said the sweeps would stop. On April 21, they resumed, even though the state remained under a stay-at-home order. The city set up tents, run by the police department, where homeless people can quarantine themselves. After opening the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage tent program (POST), Caldwell decided the sweeps could continue.

During the sweeps, Honolulu police head to parks and other public areas and instruct any homeless people they see to go to shelters, where space is extremely limited. If they refuse, police then force people out of the area by writing criminal citations for minor offenses like violations of the city’s sit-lie ordinance or smoking in a park, or by arresting homeless people who have bench warrants. Police also confiscate or destroy people’s belongings in the process of disbanding the encampment. 

Those citations turn into bench warrants when homeless individuals don’t appear in court for the ticket, in turn increasing people’s barriers to housing by saddling them with arrest records and fines. 

Caldwell’s office and the police department did not reply to requests for comment.

“Going into these encampments, you could potentially be increasing community spread,” said David Shaku of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program at Hawaii’s Health & Harm Reduction Center. “The best thing to do would be to shelter them in place, bring them soap, water, and supplies. We’re not following the guidance from the CDC, and I hope it doesn’t cause a disaster.”

Jails and prisons are especially risky places to be in the midst of a pandemic because social distancing is impossible and cleaning supplies are often scarce. Though there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Hawaii’s jails or prisons as of Wednesday, correctional institutions account for 13 of the 20 single-largest sources of known coronavirus cases in the United States, according to data gathered by the New York Times.

Yet when Hawaii’s public defender office sought to reduce the state’s jail populations, Lt. Gov. Josh Green fought the initiative and said that in the middle of the pandemic, “prison is safer than Costco.”

Even when people are released, Bob Merce, a prison reform advocate and retired attorney in Honolulu, says the state isn’t doing enough to help them transition back into the community. Nor are police doing enough to assist the island’s most vulnerable.

“Two Saturdays ago I was walking along this little place in Honolulu here and up ahead I saw three police cars,” Merce said. “They had all these homeless people standing there writing citations to them. One was a 65-year-old lady pushing a shopping cart filled with everything she owned. Her teeth were all missing, and another guy stood up to take his citation and his pants fell down because he was so thin and he didn’t even have a belt. The police were standing before these people who had a million needs, a million things we could do to help them, and the one thing that we did was make their life more miserable.”

Hawaii has one of the highest rates of homelessness of any state in the country, with at least 6,400 homeless individuals living in the state. Over 4,450 homeless people live on Oahu, 2,400 of them unsheltered. The majority of Oahu’s unsheltered population lives in downtown Honolulu, where sweeps happen frequently and the City Council has made it illegal to sit or lie on certain sidewalks.

Although the sweeps aim to force homeless people into shelters under the threat of criminal punishment, as of Tuesday, there were only about 60 spaces available in shelters across Oahu. Lately, some shelters in Oahu have had to limit space and turn more people away in order to create room for social distancing.

In the six years since the sweeps began, Oahu’s unsheltered homeless population has grown by 47 percent. In 2014, there were 1,633 unsheltered people on Oahu, according to the annual point-in-time count. Today, there are over 2,400, and the rippling economic effects of the coronavirus outbreak will most likely increase the number of people experiencing homelessness in the coming months.

“I wish the city and county would see we’ve been trying this sit-and-lie stuff for several years and I don’t think it’s working for us,” Shaku said. “This strategy doesn’t seem to be working for anybody. It’s creating a lot of busy work for the judiciary, for law enforcement. … These citations add up.”

But the Honolulu City Council is considering an expansion of laws that criminalize the city’s homeless population, despite a 2018 Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment “bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.”

The proposals would expand the areas where and times during which people are forbidden from sitting and lying. One bill seeks to make it illegal for people to sit or lie on the streets surrounding the Institute for Human Services shelters in Iwilei. Another would reduce the hours during which sitting and lying is allowed in Chinatown and downtown from six hours a night to two.

“A better solution is finding additional shelter space. The city should identify vacant buildings to purchase and convert into shelter facilities. Until that happens it’s going to be an endless game of musical chairs,” said Wookie Kim, staff attorney with the ACLU of Hawaii. “When you have a few dozen vacancies each night and 2,400 unsheltered people, there’s just no way you can say there’s enough shelter.”