Earlier this month, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed legislation prohibiting people from sitting or lying on the sidewalks of Waikiki, enacting a new law many in the state’s tourism industry hope will reduce the number of homeless people in Hawaii’s most popular visitor destination.
Caldwell also signed into law a bill banning public urination and defecation in Waikiki.
“It’s basically been the No. 1 complaint issue from our guests probably over the last two years,” Rick Egged, president of the Waikiki Improvement Association, said of the destination’s homeless population. “We get a lot of complaints from people who go out for their early morning walk or run, and they complain of a urine smell and basically unsanitary conditions from people who have been sleeping on the sidewalk overnight.”
Egged said the number of complaints by visitors has increased in the last year, and the concern isn’t only about unsanitary conditions but also safety.
“There have been a number of complaints where people just don’t feel comfortable or don’t feel safe,” he said. “And I’ve had employees, who are just trying to get to their cars after work, who don’t feel safe. It’s been a growing issue.”
Barry Wallace, executive vice president of hospitality services for Outrigger Enterprises Group, said many of his Waikiki employees have also raised similar safety concerns and noted that most of the complaints from his company’s Waikiki hotel guests come from U.S. and Australian travelers.
“It’s probably been about a year now that it’s been really bad, and it’s escalating,” he said. “Now it’s becoming a comment you can see occasionally on TripAdvisor.”
According to a June 22 New York Times report, Honolulu has seen its homeless population surge 32% over the last five years.
In a June Honolulu Star-Advertiser op-ed piece, Caldwell wrote, “It’s time to declare a war on homelessness, which is evolving into a crisis in Honolulu.”
In the piece, Caldwell, who has pursued a number of initiatives aimed at addressing Honolulu’s mounting homeless issues, noted that city workers are now removing as much as 11 tons of property from Honolulu’s sidewalks and public parks each week.
Both Outrigger and the Waikiki Improvement Association, an organization representing the district’s tourism industry and residents, were strong supporters of the new Waikiki bills. But the legislation has been controversial on Oahu, and opponents have said the new restrictions are unconstitutional and criminalize homelessness in a place where housing costs are typically much higher than elsewhere in the nation.
“We supported the sit-and-lie bill, in part, because we know there are a number of charitable organizations, like the Institute for Human Services, who have shelter space available and are willing to be there when police exercise the law and offer the person who is camping out on the sidewalk a place to go,” Wallace said.
At a Sept. 16 press conference for the bills’ signings, Caldwell said there were about 88 homeless people, mostly men, in Waikiki and that on average, over the last six months, there have been 80 beds available to men in nearby shelters. He also noted that police will first warn violators of the new sit and lie legislation before issuing citations and finally arresting people.
Police will also give out shelter information to those in violation of the new law and even call shelters directly to arrange pickup for individuals who decide they want help.
“I believe a shelter space is better than staying on our sidewalks,” Caldwell said at the press conference. “We had, in the past year, seven homeless people murdered on our streets and sidewalks on Oahu. It is dangerous on those streets. No one has been harmed physically or murdered in any shelter here, as far as I know, ever.”
Although the number of homeless-related complaints from Waikiki visitors may have increased in recent years, hotel business there has been booming, generating soaring occupancy and room revenue figures.
“Obviously for Hawaii, and in Waikiki, we still get very high visitor satisfaction rates,” Egged said. “So it’s not like we’ve been ruined. But [the increasing homeless population] is a growing issue we want to deal with.”
Egged added that the new Waikiki laws, along with the police officers’ efforts to help sidewalk sit and lie violators enter local shelters, certainly aren’t a final solution to the district’s homelessness dilemma.
“They are just a small part of what it’s going to take to deal with this very large community issue,” he said.