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ACLU Hawaiʻi report criticizes city's houseless sweeps, says money should be spent on housing

Noe Tanigawa

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi has issued a report offering alternatives to the homeless sweeps that continue in Honolulu and elsewhere in the state. The study highlights what it calls proven strategies for helping people get off the street.

Asha DuMonthier, a researcher for the ACLU Hawaiʻi, said her study shows that "sweeps," or the clearing of temporary shelters, are expensive and ineffectual.

"What the evidence shows is that sweeps do not reduce actual physical houselessness," DuMonthier said. "There's evidence from across the country that sweeps are ineffective at doing what it is that folks really want, which is to reduce the number of unhoused people on the street."

DuMonthier said criminalizing houselessness initiates a downward spiral in the criminal justice system. She said sitting and lying in parks or on the sidewalk, for example, are required activities for someone without shelter. Those activities were made illegal in some areas in ordinances passed during the Caldwell administration starting in 2014.

"What we've seen is that across the state, in every county, policing has basically become the de facto primary government response to houselessness at the local level," DuMonthier said.

The Blangiardi administration has yet to launch a planned non-police response to homeless calls — a Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement team, or CORE.

DuMonthier said police sweeps run counter to proven strategies that do get people off the street including, consistent outreach from service providers and building community among unsheltered people.

"Unhoused communities have self-organized and have reached out to local community members in order to build relationships so that the two communities can help each other out," DuMonthier said.

DuMonthier cited Puʻuhonua o Waianae, where people from an organized encampment are now building on land secured through community effort. She pointed to other organizing efforts in Kakaʻako and Waimanalo, and to strategies that keep people from losing their residences in the first place.

"Rent control, just cause for eviction protection, the right to counsel for folks that are going through eviction proceedings — all of these rights can help protect housing stability," DuMonthier said.

The Honolulu Tenants Union offers assistance, referrals and classes on tenant rights on Oʻahu.

The ACLU report estimated Honolulu spent at least $4.8 million dollars on sweeps in 2020. DuMonthier calculated the county could have acquired and preserved 26 units of unsubsidized affordable housing for that same sum.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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