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Panel focuses on ways to address homeless issues

WAILUKU — Most of the content in Mayor Alan Arakawa’s five bills aimed at curbing behavior by homeless people, such as going the bathroom in public or drinking in parks, is already enforceable by other county or state laws, said Maui County Prosecuting Attorney John D. Kim on Monday.

And one of those bills, dealing with lying down on public sidewalks, would be unenforceable because it conflicts with constitutionally protected freedom of speech laws allowing sitting or lying down in protest, said Kim.

In December, the administration presented to the council bills aimed at helping police enforce laws prohibiting drinking in public areas, urinating or defecating in public, lying down on public sidewalks, stealing shopping carts and aggressive begging. Violations of these proposed bills would carry a maximum penalty of a $500 fine or 30 days in jail.

The bills were part of a package of recommendations by the administration to the council to address the growing homeless crisis.

Kim was part of a panel Monday morning that discussed the bills before the council’s Policy and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. No action was taken, and committee Chairman Michael Victorino said he hopes to bring the bills back for more discussion at the end of November.

Two Kihei residents testified Monday about homeless people terrorizing their neighborhood, singling out one man who yells at others and defecates in public. They also spoke of gangs of homeless people congregating, drinking, causing trouble and intimidating people.

“We need the laws,” said Randy Wagner. “We need to disperse these people from the epicenter of the neighborhood.”

She said that homeless people in her neighborhood prevent her from walking to the grocery store.

Charlene Schulenburg said she has nothing against homeless people in general but that the county needs the laws to help curtail the worst behaviors. Police have told Schulenburg and others that they cannot do much to stop the ones causing trouble, she said.

The homeless problem is hurting tourism as well, said Schulenburg. She has heard some tourists say they do not want to go to Kihei or specific areas after hearing about a homeless problem.

“Kihei is a driver of our economic support system of the tourist industry, especially for Maui,” she said.

But another testifier, Steven Clark, who said he was testifying on behalf homeless people and himself, opposed the bills. Like everyone else, homeless people have basic bodily functions, but if they ask a business for a key to a restroom, they will be turned down, he said. A possible reason for unruliness might be because the homeless people are sleeping and are woken up, Clark said.

Clark admitted that some of the ills are “our fault” and that “it’s not easy for everybody.”

Dealing with that sector of the homeless population with mental health issues is challenging because of the absence of a state forensic coordinator, Kim said. The coordinator can evaluate someone who is arrested for mental health conditions and can determine if they need clinical help. The position has been vacant for two years, and the county may be looking at hiring someone, he said.

Gavin Thornton, co-executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said that he doesn’t know what the answer is to alleviate homelessness. His nonprofit group aims to alleviate injustice and inequality in the community.

Oahu has a sidewalk sit-and-lie law on the books, but “that hasn’t gotten rid of the homeless,” he said. The homeless people just move somewhere else. If the Maui County law is passed and a homeless person gets thrown in jail, it’s just “a very expensive way to house someone who is homeless,” Thornton said.

In the “Chair’s 3 Minutes” column in The Maui News on Sunday, Victorino noted that Oahu’s sit-and-lie ban applies only to specific areas to ensure the constitutionality of the ordinance. Currently, Maui County’s bill is countywide.

Assistant Police Chief Victor Ramos said that a sit-and-lie law would “give us more teeth,” while noting that not all cases would lead to arrest. The police could use the power of the law to get people lying down in public places to move along.

“We need something to give us that power” to help with the problems with homeless people, he said adding that some people choose a vagrant lifestyle and refuse help.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.