ACLU demands Hawaiʻi County homeless sweeps stop until adequate shelters, safe places
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i issued a letter on June 2 to the County of Hawai’i demanding that it stop planned sweeps of houseless people and their possessions until there is a place for them to go.
ACLU of Hawai’i said the county should set up emergency shelters that adequately can house the homeless community or designate safe spaces where houseless community members can exist without being subject to county enforcement actions, according to a press release from the organization.
Hawai’i County conducted a large-scale enforcement operation on May 24 to remove “unsafe and unhealthy” homeless encampments from Hale Hālāwai Park along touristy Aliʻi Drive in Kailua-Kona.
Hawaiʻi County intends to conduct another sweep on June 7 near the Kona Community Aquatic Center.
Before the planned sweep, Susan Kunz in the county’s housing department said in a county news release that there would be outreach to provide support and services to the people who live in that encampment.
The ACLU of Hawaiʻi said on the day of the Hale Hālāwai sweep, there were no emergency homeless shelter vacancies on the Kona side of the island.
In its demand letter, the ACLU of Hawai‘i cited Martin v. City of Boise, a U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in 2019 affirming the well-established principle that a municipality’s enforcement of an ordinance “violates the Eight Amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors, on public property, when no alternative shelter is available to them.”
The ACLU of Hawai‘i has challenged what it said are other unconstitutional enforcement actions on neighboring islands, including in the City and County of Honolulu and Maui County. The prior lawsuit against the City and County of Honolulu resulted in a legal victory for the ACLU.
In November, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court decided to hear the ACLU of Hawai‘i’s lawsuit challenging the legality of a September 2021 sweep by Maui County officials of a houseless encampment known as Pu‘uhonua o Kanahā near Kanahā Beach Park.
Paul Normann, executive director of Neighborhood Place of Puna and co-chair of Community Alliance Partners, said service providers have continuously asked the county to refrain from conducting sweeps.
“When county leadership orders police to conduct a sweep, they exacerbate the homeless crisis by making it harder for service providers to contact and help people,” Normann said in the press release. “Beyond that, these sweeps waste taxpayer dollars by pushing people around without providing housing or shelter.
“If the county leadership really wants to end homelessness, they need to aggressively prioritize truly affordable housing and supportive services. Sweeps are cruel, and they don’t work. That’s the bottom line.”
Carrie Ann Shirota, policy director of the ACLU of Hawai‘i, said: “Forcing people to leave under the threat of arrest without access to alternative shelter or safe public spaces violates the Eight Amendment and results in cruel and unusual punishment.
“These policies are contrary to building safe, healthy and equitable communities, and further exacerbate trauma experienced by houseless people at the hands of the county and police department. Hawai‘i County can and must do better — by focusing on permanent affordable housing options, emergency shelter beds and alternative housing options, along with increased health and support services.”
The Roth administration has executed contracts with 13 nonprofits for 16 projects, receiving $7.5 million in grants through the Homelessness and Housing Fund. An additional $18 million has been allocated for the Affordable Housing Production Program, which is currently accepting proposals until June 30, according to a press release from Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Rothʻs office,
The first phase of the Kūkuiola Emergency Shelter and Assessment Center in Kailua-Kona is underway, with mass grading in progress. This phase includes 16 emergency shelter units, and vertical construction is scheduled to begin in early 2024, according to the county.