Where the Sidewalk (Camping) Ends

Honolulu contemplates joining the host of cities where sacking out on the sidewalk is not allowed.

Photos: Diane Lee

When the Honolulu City Council banned camping in city parks in 2008, the number of homeless people camping on city sidewalks boomed. Now, the council is considering a law that would effectively make sidewalks no-camping zones, too.

Bill 59 would enable police to issue $50 citations to people lying on public sidewalks, following a warning. “With this bill police will have a tool to say, ‘Hey guys, time to move along,’” says councilman Stanley Chang, who introduced the measure.

The debate over the bill is highly emotional, but Honolulu won’t be the first city where it’s played out. That distinction goes to Seattle, which has prohibited sitting and lying on sidewalks since 1994.

“We had people with their backpacks and dogs and blankets spread out on the busiest sidewalks in downtown Seattle, and they’d be there all day,” says former city attorney Mark Sidran, who wrote the ordinance. “Anybody else—including the blind, elderly, mothers with children, the disabled—would have to go around.”

While Seattle’s law is still bitterly debated today, it survived a legal challenge early on when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld its constitutionality. Sidran attributes the victory to the narrow tailoring of the law. “It only applies in the business district, and it only applies during business hours,” he says.

A host of cities, mostly on the West Coast, have followed Seattle’s lead in adopting sit-lie laws, as they’re called. The most recent was San Francisco, where voters in 2010 approved a measure that prohibits sitting or lying on sidewalks between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. It applies citywide, but it’s enforced mainly in the Haight-Ashbury district, where merchants were fed up with the panhandling groups of young, would-be hippies and ill-behaved gutter punks drawn to the neighborhood synonymous with 1968’s Summer of Love.

Critics cite a study that found the bulk of the citations issued during the law’s first year of enforcement went to the same 19 offenders, most of whom are older, chronically homeless people. But Ted Lowenberg, head of the Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association, says the law has slashed the number of young panhandlers in the area.

“It has done the job we set out to do,” he says.

Honolulu’s proposed ordinance has exemptions that include babies in strollers and anyone engaged in “expressive activities,” such as protestors or performers. People with proof they’ve been turned away from a homeless shelter would also be exempt.

Chang points to that last provision as evidence his bill isn’t singling out anybody in particular. “This is not a bill targeted at the homeless,” he says. “It expressly excludes the homeless.”

Homeless advocates aren’t buying that.

“It does indeed target the homeless,” says Sugar Russell, a member of the protest group (de)Occupy Honolulu. “There’s nobody else who ever lays down on the sidewalk.”

Did you know? An estimated 4,556 people on Oahu are homeless, according to the Homeless Point-in-Time Count for 2013. That’s up 4.7 percent from 2012. 


Updated: The sidewalk bill died in the City Council Public Safety and Economic Development Committee on Nov. 19.