Honolulu Shores Up Tourism With Crackdown on Homeless


It was just before 7 a.m. and the streets of Waikiki were filled with tourists, surfers, early morning joggers — and Ronnie Cruz, a 34-year-old homeless man getting a ticket from a Honolulu police officer for pushing a shopping cart piled high with his belongings along the sidewalk.

Honolulu Shores Up Tourism With Crackdown on Homeless

“Happens all the time,” Mr. Cruz said after he made his way to the other side of Kalakaua Avenue. “They won’t let you stand over there.”

“I’ve got four of them,” he said, reaching into a billfold as he displayed the tattered tickets.

This tourist mecca has had a surge in its homeless population, which is up 32 percent over the past five years. The explosion has prompted one of the toughest police crackdowns in the nation, sounded alarms among civic leaders that aggressive panhandlers are scaring off tourists, and set off an anguished debate on how to deal with the destitute in a state that prides itself on its friendly and easygoing ways.

Honolulu officials say they are confiscating up to 10 tons of property left on the sidewalk by homeless people every week.


A woman finds shade along Kalakaua Avenue in Honolulu, where officials are implementing rules to discourage homeless people from staying in tourist areas. Credit Elyse Butler for The New York Times

“It’s time to declare a war on homelessness, which is evolving into a crisis in Honolulu,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell, a Democrat, wrote in a provocative essay that appeared in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser this month. “We cannot let homelessness ruin our economy and take over our city.”

In an interview in his City Hall offices, Mr. Caldwell said that many of the homeless are people who were drawn here from the mainland by the promise of balmy weather, only to encounter some of the highest housing costs in the nation and no family nearby to help them through tough times.

In addition to seizing the belongings of homeless people, Honolulu is closing public parks at night and banning tents and lean-tos in public spaces. The City Council last week began debating legislation that would authorize the police to roust anyone found lying or sleeping on a sidewalk or in a public space; a second law would impose fines of up to $1,000, or 30 days in jail, for public urination or defecation in the beachfront neighborhood of Waikiki. The council also authorized a $47 million program to create low-cost housing.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that in 2013 there were 6,335 homeless people in Hawaii, a state of just 1.4 million, and that the state had the second highest proportion of unsheltered homeless individuals, after California. Honolulu is hardly alone in its struggle with rising homelessness and in taking measures to get people off the street. Similar legislation has been proposed in Portland, Ore., Tucson and Los Angeles, as well as communities in Florida, another state whose warm climate is inviting to both homeless people and tourists.

“It is generally true in sunshine tourist states that there is a war going on between tourism and development versus helping the homeless,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless.

But the stakes here are particularly high because the Hawaiian economy is so dependent on tourism. Mr. Caldwell said he had received letters from tourists complaining about run-ins with homeless people, and had responded with notes asking them to give the city another chance.

The crackdown has led to what many people say is a noticeable reduction in the homeless population in Waikiki. But despite what officials say is a concerted attempt to place the homeless into housing, they acknowledge the steps taken so far have simply displaced many people to parts of Oahu that are off the tourist track.

“We’re so sleep-deprived, we’re running around,” said Bill Garcia, 51, who has been living on the streets of Waikiki since coming from Los Angeles in search of a job. “We ask them, ‘Where do you want us to go?’ and they just say, ‘Get out of Waikiki.’ ”

Honolulu’s Chinatown, just five miles from Waikiki, was flooded with homeless people the other evening. People were lying on the sidewalk, some barely dressed. One man in a tattered shirt wandered in the street. A third recognized Gov. Neil Abercrombie as he emerged from a restaurant and asked him for some change. Mr. Abercrombie reached into his pocket and gave the man a dollar bill.


Mayor Kirk Caldwell of Honolulu wrote an essay in The Honolulu Star-Advertiser advocating a “war on homelessness.” Credit Cory Lum for The New York Times

Mr. Caldwell said Honolulu was trying to find sensitive ways to deal with the problem, and pointed to the city’s investment in housing. But he acknowledged the efforts have fallen short.

“We haven’t eliminated the visual impact of homelessness,” Mr. Caldwell said. “When visitors come here, they want to see their paradise. They don’t want to see homeless people sleeping in parks or on sidewalks or on the beach.”

He continued, “I want to do this in a constitutional way, a human way, but I want to do it. We need to do it. I call it compassionate disruption — we are not doing it without heart.”

Mike McCartney, the president of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said Honolulu was motivated not only by tourism concerns. “It’s an island issue and a social issue that everyone is committed to addressing,” he said.

“I think we are doing it with aloha,” he said, using the Hawaiian word that connotes compassion. “But doing it with aloha doesn’t mean you are not going to be firm. It doesn’t mean you are not going to be aggressive. It doesn’t mean you are going to tolerate things that you can’t tolerate.”

Jerry Jones, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the crackdown in Honolulu was “as bad as we’ve seen it recently.” He said Mr. Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” was “a pretentious phrase to dress up an ugly policy — sending the police to round up poor people isn’t compassionate.”

He added, “Have we gotten so far out of touch with reality that our first reaction to people experiencing destitution is that it spoils our view of the beach?”

Mr. Cruz, who received the ticket in Waikiki, said he came here from California drawn by the promise of a job that never materialized, and soon found himself living on the street. He said his identification had been confiscated, so he has no way to fly home — even if he had the money to do so.

“Now I can’t get back,” he said. “And I can’t get a job.”

John McCormick, 55, who can be found most days reciting Scripture on the streets of Waikiki, said he now avoids sleeping there to avoid the police. He, too, scoffed at the mayor’s description of this policy.

“He’s not making a war on homelessness,” Mr. McCormick said. “He’s making a war against the homeless.”


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