Thursday, August 28, 2014

 

Criminalization bills pass City Council committee despite overwhelming negative testimony


by Larry Geller


Update: Please see comments for more on the IHS savings accounts mentioned in the article.

In a session that ran into overtime, more than four hours of testimony overwhelmingly opposed the passage of five bills that would have the effect of criminalizing homelessness in either Waikiki or everywhere on Oahu. One set of bills prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk another set prohibits urinating or defecating in public areas.

But the committee passed all of the bills.

Except for Breen Harimoto, who spoke eloquently against the bills before the final votes, all the other members of the  Zoning and Planning Committee followed Chair Ikaika Anderson’s recommendation to pass the bills.

Bills 42, 43, 45 and 46 have now passed the required three readings, and 48 has passed two. The final vote before the first four go to the Mayor will be at the City Council’s meeting in September.

This won’t be “disappeared news”—it will be on TV tonight and in the paper tomorrow, so let me just touch on some highlights.

Breen Harimoto’s speech against the bills pretty much followed my testimony, amazingly, in the article posted below. But there were plenty of others who spoke similarly, I’m not taking any special credit for that.

The first speaker was the city Managing Director,  Ember Shinn. She told the committee that (paraphrase) Hawaii was in the vanguard in applying Housing First. That set off bells. So (thanks to the free WiFi at Honolulu Hale) I googled Housing First, and quickly learned that other states had implemented this evidence-based solution many years ago, but not including Hawaii. That’s how it gets described as “evidence-based,” right? One collects the evidence from those who have been doing it.

In fact, the program goes back to 1988.

A snip from the first hit:

The Denver Housing First Collaborative, operated by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, provides housing through a Housing First approach to more than 200 chronically homeless individuals. A 2006 cost study documented a significant reduction in the use and cost of emergency services by program participants as well as increased health status. Emergency room visits and costs were reduced by an average of 34.3 percent. Hospital inpatient costs were reduced by 66 percent. Detox visits were reduced by 82 percent. Incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76 percent. 77 percent of those entering the program continued to be housed in the program after two years.

Yup, it seems to work. Nope, we are not doing it yet. and Nope again, the City doesn’t even seem to understand that it is not doing it.

Several testifiers pointed out that the bills on the table today do not help anybody, but could make it more difficult for those nabbed to later find employment, etc., because they would have a record. Some objected to taking people from the streets to jail (though note, Honolulu has no jails, I believe they would go to prison). The path is something like this: sit on the sidewalk –> receive a warning  –> sit on the sidewalk –> receive a citation –> be fined in court –> fail to pay the fine (because no money) –> off to OCCC.

At least one testifier noted that the laws would be enforced selectively. Those sitting on the sidewalk waiting in line overnight to sign up for an expensive Kakaako condominium would not be cited, nor would those parked on chairs for days in a line around the block waiting to purchase the latest iPhone. Only someone who looks homeless need fear the cops.

There were two side issues that recurred: the IHS alternative, whether it was real or not, and the City testimony that people could easily get their seized property back, even without paying the $200 fee.

I reported what I had been told repeatedly by people on the street—that their personal belongings, including ID, medicines, and even one woman’s colostomy bag, were thrown into a garbage truck and destroyed, not stored. As to storage, they said they were told that they needed to pay $200 to get their stuff back.

A testifier said she was hoping to get off the street soon, but two sweeps devastated her—they took away her tents and all other belongings, resulting in her being reduced to zero. Others spoke similarly. There are pictures and videos on this website demonstrating that garbage trucks were part of the raids. One person testified that she had been given five minutes to gather what she wanted to keep, and then her tent and its entire contents were lifted up and taken away. And that took place in middle of the night. Imagine if that happened to you…

This was woven into the IHS mini-controversy which ensued. IHS supports the bills and was, along with the Waikiki tourist industry folks, about the only organizations to do so. Despite the raids and the hardship of living on the streets (including being stung by centipedes), people said that they could not or would not go into a shelter, and they explained why.

One testifier noted that there would appear to be an ethical problem with IHS supporting bills that would help fill their facility, for which they charge the occupants. Yes, the shelter imposes a charge for staying there. While this may not be unreasonable, nevertheless, they were put on the spot for their obvious conflict of interest. One person alleged that savings accounts were created for them from which the fees were deducted, but they were not allowed to keep the interest (?).

Others mentioned bedbugs and other vermin. One former occupant mentioned that some women had to resort to sex work in order to pay their IHS bill and remain in the shelter. One person mentioned that he had pets he was not willing to part with, and so could not stay in the shelter. Several said that we need to implement Housing First, not band-aid solutions.

Oh, before I forget, the Waikiki tourist folks said they were going to open one bathroom, near the police substation. Yippee!  One bathroom. They can build myriad hotels and condo-hotels, so how about supporting Housing First in some way? The bathroom offer was apparently a response to objections to the bills prohibiting urinating and defecating in public while there is no access to public toilets in Honolulu.

Councilmember Carol Fukunaga had introduced amendments to extend the reach of the bills to shopping malls, but the committee removed those on advice of its counsel, who noted that the title of the bills referred only to sidewalks, so extending the bans to private property would be unconstitutional.

What else… it was really intense and moving at times. There was repeated applause as one testifier after another opposed the bills on humanitarian, moral, religious, ethical or even economic grounds (that is, these bills will cost taxpayers money, while Housing First has been shown to save money). (An attorney suggested he would file suit against the laws, noting that his legal fees were quite high).

Despite the testimony, and despite calls for the bills to be deferred until after Housing First was implemented (really implemented, not just a few apartments), Chair Anderson passed the bills through.

Go figure.



Comments:

Mr. Geller, thank you for your testimony today in opposition of the bills. I am one of the 'former occupants' of IHS. To clear up about the bit about the special Kokua accounts, in my experience fees were NOT deducted, nor allowed to be, from the account until final exit from institution. Maybe allowances were made for others (yet more opacity) but I was told that I could not access my savings, at all, unless I was ready to exit the institution. We were told we needed to hand over to them, monthly, a third of income or other money. You are correct about our not receiving interest.
 


Thank you for your clarification. I'll note it in the main article as an Update.
 

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