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County homeless bill sparks ‘firestorm’

Measure would ban free food, money, goods without services

A man sleeps outside a camp pitched along Lalo Street in Kahului on Tuesday afternoon. A measure proposed by Council Member Tasha Kama to ban the giving of goods and money to homeless people in order to nudge them into social services and housing received a lot of criticism on Tuesday during a council meeting. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

Brian Hauser said Tuesday that he would not be able to buy a pizza and give a slice to a starving or homeless person under a measure being considered by the County Council.

“I don’t understand any merit of this bill whatsoever,” he said during the council’s regular meeting. “I would be fined for giving someone a slice of pizza.”

Introduced by Council Member Tasha Kama, the proposed bill would ban the giving of goods and money to homeless people in county-owned areas without simultaneously providing “wrap-around services” by recognized providers. 

The goal of the legislation is to address critical levels of chronic homelessness by nudging unsheltered people into social services to receive assessments, compassionate assistance and referral services, a news release from Kama’s office said.

Violations in the draft proposal include fines ranging from $100 to $400 or banning people for a time from distributing food, money or goods.

A person wrapped in a blanket stands next to a shopping cart in Paia on Tuesday

“The intent and spirit of the bill is to help people move off the streets and toward permanent housing,” Kama said in the news release. “This bill seeks to ensure that unsheltered individuals and families are receiving the social services they need. . . . Frustrated residents and business owners have pleaded with me to address the problems associated with increasing numbers of unsheltered individuals and large encampments of the unsheltered that are intimidating both customers and employees.”

Council members said Tuesday that the proposal sparked an “unexpected firestorm” from community groups and residents who questioned whether the proposal violates First Amendment rights.

Nicole Huguenin, a representative for homeless aid groups Chili’s On Wheels on Maui and Maui Rapid Response, testified during the council meeting Tuesday that the proposal is illegal.

“Based on the review of five national court cases . . . feeding the homeless is a conduct protected by the First Amendment,” she said. “We believe this bill is illegal in nature. We request that it be filed and believe it’s a waste of taxpayer money to proceed further.”

Huguenin said Maui Rescue Mission served 651 unique individuals with showers, laundry and resource support in Lahaina, Kahului and Kihei just this year. Also, Chili’s on Wheels helped 366 people in Kahului just last month. 

Tires and tarps help form a homeless encampment along Amala Place near the Kahului Wastewater Treatment Plant on Tuesday.

Of those served throughout the year, she said more than 80 percent have requested support with food stamps, medical care, medical insurance, unemployment support, gathering of official documents, shelter, rehab, mental health and connection with jobs.

Huguenin said building trusting relationships among homeless people by offering basic human needs of food, water and first aid must be done before mandating wraparound services.

“Over time, we find the request for wraparound services is initiated by the person experiencing homelessness, no matter their trauma, addiction or mental health capacity, which increases their ability to self-advocate and stick through painstaking process of accessing long-term wraparound support like housing,” she said.

Lisa Darcy, founder of Maui County homeless nonprofit Share Your Mana, testified that her group also started questioning the legality of the proposal when reading the proposed bill.

“It’s perplexing to me how the words are even in the sentences being proposed,” she said.

Darcy added that she wants to have a much larger platform for discussion on the complex topic.

Steve Calkins, a founder of Hungry Homeless Heroes, invited council members to go out with him and deliver food to the hungry. The volunteer organization started at the onset of the pandemic and has cooked and delivered more than 55,000 meals to homeless people since then, he said. 

“I personally go out and deliver to these people, these human beings,” Calkins said. “They are just that, human beings. They have bigger hearts than a lot of people that I call my friends.”

He added that the proposal is “disgraceful” and a “clear violation of our First Amendment rights.”

Adrienne Epifano, a Haiku resident, said that homelessness is widespread in Maui County due to the pandemic. She said the proposal shouldn’t pass because more help, not less, is needed for the unsheltered.

After about 10 people spoke against the proposal and others submitted written testimony, the council Tuesday unanimously voted 9-0 to file the communication and refer the subject matter to the council Affordable Housing Committee, which is chaired by Kama.

“This was an unexpected firestorm,” Council Member Mike Molina said before the vote, adding that if approved, he could get in trouble for trying to help friends and acquaintances who are unsheltered. “There is outrage around this bill. I don’t think that was the original intent of it.”

Due to the high interest in the proposed measure, Kama is planning a public virtual question-and-answer session prior to discussion with the Affordable Housing Committee, according to Kama’s news release. For an invitation, email Kama’s office at invitation-feeding-bill@mauicounty.us.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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