ACLU sues Honolulu city, county for homeless sweeps; Hawaiʻi County’s mayor said its ‘park enforcement operations’ are different
A lawsuit filed on July 26 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i in 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu is challenging anti-houseless laws and enforcement actions including sweeps, in which people and their belongings are removed from public places.
The lawsuit on behalf of five houseless people, also represented by the firm Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, said these enforcement actions violate their rights under the Hawaiʻi State Constitution by criminalizing them and routinely depriving them of their property.
Hawai‘i County has been criticized for its own sweeps, or park enforcement operations as the county calls them, including two recent ones at Hale Hālāwai Beach Park and Kona Aquatics Center, both in Kailua-Kona, the main tourist town of the island.
But Mayor Mitch Roth and county staff have reviewed what the ACLU of Hawai‘i is claiming in the lawsuit against the City and County of Honolulu — and he said on Tuesday that what is happening on Hawai‘i Island regarding park enforcement operations is different.
Roth said Hawaiʻi County did not arrest or cite anyone during the recent park enforcement operations.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs living in Honolulu were cited and arrested a number of times during different sweeps. All its plaintiffs, who are all involuntarily homeless in Honolulu, allege the city has violated the law by “criminalizing houseless individuals simply for existing in public spaces, despite the lack of any realistic alternative for shelter.”
ACLU criticized Hawai‘i County following a May 24 parks rules enforcement in the early morning at Hale Hālāwai Beach Park in Kona. In a June 2 letter, the ACLU of Hawaiʻi said that homeless sweep violated the people’s constitutional rights and demanded Hawaiʻi County stop future enforcement operations until it could provide shelter or a safe area for all houseless individuals.
The county responded on June 6 with a letter of its own, defending the operation, saying they are committed to a “balanced approach that considers the well-being of both the homeless population and the general public.”
Taylor Brack, Staff Attorney ACLU of Hawaiʻi, said on Tuesday via email that the response letter issued by Roth’s office does not address the constitutional violations inherent in its enforcement actions at Hale Hālāwai.
Brack said the purpose of sending the letter in June was to start a conversation with the county and impress upon officials that the right to enforce park rules does not permit the county to disregard the legal obligation they have to protect the constitutional rights of houseless residents in their jurisdiction.
At the time the ACLU letter was received, Hawaiʻi County already had another park rules enforcement effort planned at Kona Aquatics Center. It went ahead with it on June 5.
Brack said the ACLU of Hawai‘i was disappointed to learn the county “once again stripped houseless residents of their personal belongings” and “forcibly removed them from their place of residence without due regard for this constitutional mandate.”
The ACLU of Hawaiʻi was asked if they planned to sue Hawaiʻi County, but they did not respond directly to that question. But Brack did say: “As a result of county officials’ actions, we will be evaluating all available options.”
On Tuesday, Roth said the county partnered with social services on both occasions to work with those living at Hale Hālāwai and Kona Aquatics Center in an effort to offer assistance into housing.
As a result, 13 out of 17 houseless individuals at Kona Aquatics Center were placed into housing.
“We didn’t do arrests or cite anyone,” Roth said during those operations. “Our approach to homelessness has always been holistic.”
The lawsuit filed in Honolulu does not ask for money. Instead, it asks the court to stop the City’s targeted enforcement actions — including sweeps, citations, and arrests — that disrupt and disenfranchise houseless people, unless and until there is adequate shelter.
“The sweeps are stressful for me,” said one of the named plaintiffs, Jared “Spider” Castro. “It makes me feel awful to be singled out by the city and its police officers all of the time. These are things that we go through on a regular basis, and I am sad to report that interactions like these are my normal.”
In the last three years, Castro has received citations for more than 200 violations for actions like failing to comply with a park sign, sleeping on the sidewalk, and storing property in public spaces. Many of those citations also led to arrest and incarceration, which resulted in the loss of his personal property.
“People experiencing houselessness have the same fundamental rights under the U.S. and Hawai‘i Constitutions as those who are lucky enough to have housing and shelter, yet the day-to-day reality regarding the exercise of those rights is much different for our houseless neighbors,” said Wookie Kim, ACLU of Hawaiʻi Legal Director. “Our plaintiffs and houseless neighbors are denied these fundamental rights, and other constitutional guarantees, far more flagrantly and far more often than housed people. The city is essentially penalizing houseless people for their very existence.”
In response to the lawsuit filed in Honolulu County, Brandee Menino, CEO of Hope Services, said their organization doesn’t support sweeps because it breaks connections to service providers.
“It’s inhumane, and people living in groups have shared with us that they feel safer together as an ‘ohana rather than living outdoors alone and becoming targets of violent acts,” Menino said.
Since the May 24 and June 5 operations, Roth said houseless residents are doing better about abiding by the park rules. He said: “The key is making sure we have rooms for people to stay and making sure people can get into housing.”
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.
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.
Through their class action complaint, the plaintiffs seek to represent the more than 2,000 other Oʻahu residents who suffer similar treatment by the City of Honolulu.
The ACLU of Hawai’i filed this lawsuit as part of its strategic campaign to decriminalize poverty and defend the basic human rights and civil liberties of all people living in Hawaiʻi regardless of their housing or socioeconomic status.
“Protecting the rights of houseless people and reducing houselessness is in everyone’s best interests,” Brack said. “While the focus is currently on reducing the visible effects of houselessness, our limited resources would be better invested in cost-effective interventions for people experiencing housing insecurity.”