HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers are considering creating a homeless bill of rights that supporters say would guard against laws that allow authorities to roust or intimidate people forced to live on the streets.
The measure, House Bill 1889, states that homeless people have the right to move around in public without harassment. It also asserts their right to vote, to have personal information protected and to receive equal treatment by government agencies.
Supporters told members of the House Committee on Human Services on Thursday that enforcement actions by city and county government effectively strip civil rights from homeless people, who often lack access to ways of seeking redress.
The measure would give lawyers a tool to use when they challenge laws in court, Kathryn Xian, the executive director of the Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, testified. She called the bill of rights “a good first step” toward protecting vulnerable people.
Forty-five of every 10,000 people in Hawaii are homeless, the highest rate of any state, according a 2012 report by the Homelessness Research Institute. Rhode Island, Connecticut and Illinois also have passed bills of rights for homeless people.
David Moskowitz, 63, said he has supported ordinances aimed at clearing homeless people out of his posh Waikiki neighborhood. Then, two months ago, he visited with “some gentlemen who live on the bridge near me,” he testified to the committee. Seeing their plight, and watching local government agencies clear the area, moved him to change his stance.
“When the press isn’t there, and people aren’t watching, they’re breaking people’s constitutional rights, and I’ve seen them do it with my own eyes,” he said while testifying in support of the bill of rights.
Reached afterward by phone, Ross Sasamura, the director and chief engineer of the Department of Facility Maintenance for the city and county of Honolulu, said his department does perform sweeps at least three times a week. Those actions are aimed at enforcing city ordinances against blocking sidewalks and keeping personal belongings on public property.
Goods that his department collects from homeless people, he said, are picked up because they’re blocking public spaces, and can be claimed by their owners within 30 days.
“Our department’s purpose is not to resolve the homelessness issue or for that matter to provide shelter to anyone who needs a home,” Sasamura said.
State lawmakers are also considering a bill that aims to increase penalties for crimes against homeless people. Supporters of that measure say homeless people are vulnerable to attacks. As evidence they point to the killings of three men on Oahu since December in which the victims appear to have been targeted because they were homeless.