Aloha and welcome to paradise - unless you're homeless

HONOLULU — Anna Sullivan is prohibited from sitting on a sidewalk. She cannot wander off to find food without worrying that the police might seize her shopping cart. She cannot sleep on Waikiki Beach without fear of being rousted.

Sullivan, 45, has been homeless for eight years since she got out of prison. But these days — after run-ins with the police over where she sleeps, sits or leaves her belongings — she tries to keep away from Waikiki, the bustling tourist district whose sidewalks and beaches she once used as her home.

"Tickets, tickets, tickets," she said, already looking weary at the start of her morning, sipping a cup of iced coffee as she sat on a bench by the beach. "The cops give you a ticket to keep you moving. And then you have to pay the ticket for sleeping in the park. It gets to you."

Two years ago, Honolulu, for all its opulence and appeal to tourists, was a nationally known hub of homelessness: people sprawling on benches and sidewalks, panhandling, guarding piles of tents and clothes, sleeping in doorways and moving around aimlessly. Business leaders described the atmosphere as a fundamental threat to the tourist-based economy.

But these days, the homeless who had crowded large parts of this city are, to a considerable extent, gone.

The change came after Honolulu responded with force to what the governor described as a state of emergency, passing tough criminal laws aimed at ridding sidewalks, streets and parks of the homeless. At the same time, the city sent teams of social workers out to help the homeless move into shelters. And the tourist industry put up money to cover airfare for homeless people who had come from the mainland and who said they were ready to go home.

Now it is possible to spend hours wandering Waikiki and Chinatown, two historic neighborhoods where hundreds of homeless people once settled, and encounter only the occasional reminder that Hawaii has the highest per capita homeless population in the nation.

A battery of laws that effectively criminalize homelessness is sweeping the nation, embraced by places like Orlando, Florida; Santa Cruz, California; and Manchester, New Hampshire. By the end of 2014, 100 cities had made it a crime to sit on a sidewalk, a 43 percent increase over 2011, according to a survey of 187 major American cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. The number of cities that banned sleeping in cars jumped to 81 from 37 during that same period. There have been laws outlawing panhandling and authorizing the removal of tent camps.

Honolulu's mayor, Kirk Caldwell, coined the phrase "compassionate disruption" to describe what the city is doing, because the measures are accompanied by outreach programs.

But there seems little doubt among city officials and the homeless themselves that the change on the streets is primarily a result of the laws that permit authorities to tell people to stop sitting on sidewalks, and to seize belongings that are illegally piled on public land.

The crackdown comes amid the gentrification that is transforming cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and Honolulu, contributing to higher housing costs and increased homelessness.

"You know what they say the state bird of Hawaii is?" asked Eric John Odegaard, 44, who has been homeless most of his life, gesturing to the growing Honolulu skyline. "The crane." Odegaard sleeps in the nearby mountains.

In Honolulu, the most recent homeless law made it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks, with criminal penalties if warnings are ignored in Waikiki, the tourist district, and in Chinatown. That followed laws that let authorities seize the belongings of homeless people left in public spaces, and that closed many parks and beaches at night. So far, there have been only a handful of arrests; the strategy here is to use the threat of tickets and jail to prod homeless people to go someplace else.

"I would tell you emphatically that it's working really, really well," said George Szigeti, the head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "The No. 1 reason that people were saying they would not come back to Hawaii was because of homelessness."

Some social workers say that the specter of enforcement makes it easier to persuade the homeless to try a night in a shelter bed or enter a drug-treatment program. Other advocates have sued the city over some of its approaches.

For all the applause from the tourist industry and City Hall, the Honolulu experience appears to be more of a salve to the concerns of civic leaders than a solution to finding a bed for those without a place to live. In 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 7,620 people as homeless in Hawaii, whose population totals 1.4 million. The vast majority of the homeless are in Honolulu, on Oahu.

While homeless people have largely vanished from the areas that were the focus of the crackdown, many have just gone elsewhere, into the dense greenery up Diamond Head Road, to out-of-the-way alleys and remote corners of public parks.

In interviews, homeless men and women displayed a mastery of the intricacies of state and city laws, of how some sidewalks are covered and others are not and of how beaches open at 5 a.m., allowing a few hours to sleep before it gets too hot. They know not to smoke a cigarette on a beach or push a shopping cart along the sidewalk in Waikiki, prohibited activities which will draw the attention of the police.

"We had to go from the state side of the street to the city property," said Brian Bowser, 36, who has been homeless since 1995. "We just do our best."

Hawaii has among the highest per capita living costs in the country; there are not many places where the indigent can afford to live.

"You see tents going up everywhere," said Victor Geminiani, executive director of Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, an advocate of homeless people. "It's just a matter of whack-a-mole."

Ernie Martin, chairman of the Honolulu City Council, said he voted reluctantly for the sidewalk law, known as the sit-lie measure, and saw it as a stopgap.

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter: We can sit-lie the whole island if we want," he said. "The population has to go somewhere. We can't push them into the ocean."

The sidewalk ordinance took effect at the end of 2014, and through March 1 of this year the police had issued 16,215 warnings and written 534 summonses, according to city officials.

"People moved because they were being harassed," said Dan Foster, 49, who has been homeless since coming from Oregon more than a year ago. "Between dealing with cops and legal authorities, they'd rather just go so they don't have to deal with it. I think it's a violation of our constitutional rights, our right to sit places and sleep where we choose. But you know what? I understand. There's a lot going on out here."

The City Council last year expanded the sit-lie ordinance to include 16 neighborhoods, putting more territory off bounds. Asked whether he would advise other cities to embrace the approach, Caldwell responded without hesitation. "Yes," he said.

"Sit-lie is not about homelessness," Caldwell said, as he took a visitor on a tour around the city, pointing out the new high-priced condominiums rising over boulevards where tents and homeless outposts once lined the street. "Sit-lie is about commerce. It's about keeping sidewalks open for people to do business."

Across town the next morning, police officers monitoring a bank of surveillance cameras at the Chinatown substation spotted Darlin Abelaye, who has lived most of her 55 years on the streets here. She was settled in front of a liquor store, her legs splayed, struggling to light a cigarette. By sitting down, she was violating the 16-month-old city ordinance.

Moments later, Abelaye looked up as two officers approached on Maunakea Street. She peered up the empty sidewalks and rose unsteadily. By now, she knew where to head when the police came.

"I'll go to Aala Park," she said. "That's where I'll sleep."


Kaka'ako is a retail neighborhood two miles up the shoreline from Waikiki, and not a place where tourists tend to stray.

Last summer it became a flash point in Honolulu's campaign to rid the streets of the homeless. Sidewalks and patches of grass were covered with tents, sleeping bags, shopping carts, folding chairs and piles of belongings. Merchants and residents in Kaka'ako complained that the influx was a result of the campaign to push people out of Chinatown and Waikiki.

So, a week after Labor Day, teams of city sanitation workers showed up, carrying brooms and shovels. They were followed by garbage trucks. As the police and the homeless looked on, the workers cleared the sidewalks and streets, throwing tents, blankets, clothing and refuse that had been left behind into the trucks.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Hawaii, charging that Honolulu was violating the constitutional rights of people struggling to survive.

"We are very concerned about laws that criminalize the status of indigency," said Daniel M. Gluck, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaii. "We have seen some very aggressive laws here."

The court agreed. In January, Honolulu signed a stipulation promising to wait 45 days before destroying the belongings it seized, allowing people a chance to retrieve them, and to guarantee 24 hours' notice, in most cases, before clearing sidewalks and parks. The city is required to videotape the material it takes.

"We have to store property longer, which we are doing," Caldwell said. "We have to inventory what we store." The sweeps have gone on: Eight-person crews go out five days a week.

These kinds of cases, challenging city actions, are cropping up elsewhere. The U.S. Justice Department filed a brief last summer asking a federal court to throw out a Boise, Idaho, ordinance that prohibited sleeping in public places, arguing that anti-camping regulations in a city where there was insufficient shelter violated constitutional provisions against cruel and unusual punishment. The court dismissed the lawsuit brought by homeless plaintiffs.

"It was a good opportunity for us to make very clear that jurisdictions like Boise can't make it a crime for people who are homeless to sleep in public places when there aren't enough beds in the city," said Vanita Gupta, principal deputy assistant general with the department's civil rights division. "Punishing someone for sleeping in a public place would basically be punishing someone for being homeless. Criminalizing conduct that is integral to one's status is equivalent to criminalizing status."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced this year that it would steer homeless assistance funds away from cities that use various prohibitions that it says make homelessness illegal.

"We are strongly against such measures," said Matthew Doherty, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, which coordinates the federal response to homelessness. "By criminalizing people's lives as they experience homelessness, it makes it harder to get them out of homelessness."


Ralph McCarroll sat slumped in a wheelchair on a busy Waikiki street corner, the morning sun bright over his head, his face tracked with stitches and bruises from tripping on the curb the night before. A pint of vodka was tucked at his side. Justin Phillips, who spent years living on the street and is now the senior outreach officer for the Institute for Human Services, a nonprofit agency which helps the homeless, crouched beside him.

"Can I get you something?" Phillips asked, taking out a packet of baby wipes to clean the wounds on the man's face.

"Another bottle of vodka," McCarroll said with a cackle.

"I can't do that for you," Phillips said, leaning in to whisper another idea.

"If I wanted detox, I would have been there already, Justin," McCarroll replied.

McCarroll has maintained his perch on his corner, law or no law, for as long as he can remember. Few authorities would want to be in a position of rousting a battered, 64-year-old man from his wheelchair. Not that they have given up.

"I have 30 tickets," he said. "I'm never going to pay them and they know that."

Yet that does not appear to deter Phillips, who is trying to persuade people whose plight he once shared to break out of this life.

"We come out here, we try to get them into the shelter, cleaned up," Phillips said. "At that point, we'll try to do an intervention: 'Hey, you want to go to detox? By the way, we have an outpatient program for alcohol and drugs. Can I sign you up?'"

While punitive laws have drawn criticism from federal officials, they are applauded here by some advocates of the homeless.

"A lot of people say these laws don't work," said Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations with the Institute for Human Services. "But as a service provider, we advocated for these laws because our homeless outreach teams need to motivate clients to take action."

Two years ago, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association gave $500,000 to the Institute for Human Services on a promise from the institute that it could cut the homeless population in Waikiki in half. The money went to pay for teams like the one Phillips was leading, a shuttle to take people to a shelter for a shower, clean clothes and food, and the airline relocation program.

"This is our economic engine. We absolutely had to do this," said Szigeti, the head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, who was the president of the lodging and tourism association at the time.

There were 559 men and women living on the streets of Waikiki and Chinatown when the program began in November 2014. As of early March, that population had been slashed by 392, Carvalho said: 219 had been placed in temporary or permanent housing, and another 173 had been flown out.

Still, enforcement is a fraught subject in Hawaii, whose allure is built in no small part on marketing itself to the world as the Aloha State, with a welcoming atmosphere. Caldwell recoils at the use of words like "sweep" and "confiscation." Leland Cadoy, a police corporal walking the streets of Waikiki with a reporter, kindly addressed every homeless person he saw, and spoke only of "RCPs."

"Residentially challenged people," he said, when asked about the abbreviation. "You call someone homeless, it sounds derogatory."

Even as he applauded the changes in Waikiki, Gov. David Ige said the crackdown was not the answer to the homeless crisis that has become such a part of life here. He said that what Honolulu needed was affordable housing, a goal that has stubbornly eluded this island.

"Homelessness has reached every community in the island — in areas where you didn't see them five years ago," he said. "If you are just enforcing and moving people from location to location you are not really reducing or solving the problem. It's just making it someone else's problems. It's not like they can leave the state."