Homeless families in Honolulu say city destroys what little they have left

The civil liberties group says the city is aggressively cracking down on homelessness, destroying the belongings of homeless families and preventing them from accessing food and medicine.

Cathy Bussewitz/AP
Kionina Kaneso (l.) smiles at her granddaughter Keioleen Helly plays with an antenna outside the structure where they live on a sidewalk on Wednesday, in Honolulu. Ms. Kaneso is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed Wednesday against the city of Honolulu, claiming city officials deprived homeless people of food and other belongings during raids on encampments.

In Honolulu, many homeless people say they are losing precious belongings, medicine, food, and even their identification as the city aggressively clears out encampments.

With some of the largest homeless encampments in the country, the city has been conducting sweeps since last November in order to enforce laws which prohibit blocking or storing property on sidewalks.

While city officials say they are simply following the law, for people living in the camps or on the streets, especially homeless families, the sweeps have become particularly intense. Crews from the city sometimes arrived unannounced, they say.

“Nobody had time to get their stuff,” Tabatha Martin, who lives in one of the camps with her husband and their four-year-old daughter, told KITV, an ABC affiliate in Hawaii.

Now, the American Civil Liberties Union in Hawaii has joined the fight, filing suit against Honolulu and alleging the city denied homeless people access to food and medication and destroyed their property during a sweep of an encampment in Kakaako last November.

The civil liberties group hopes to obtain a court order that would halt the sweeps and force the city to compensate people whose property has been destroyed.

“If you go down to Kakaako and look at the signs that are posted in that area, the signs very clearly state the city intends to immediately destroy things like tarps, tent poles, and food from our clients,” Daniel Gluck, legal director of the ACLU’s office in Hawaii, told KITV.

Ms. Martin, who has joined the suit, says losing government identification in the sweep has been particularly difficult, preventing her family from moving to a local shelter. They now live in a tent in Kakaako, Hawaii News Now reports.

“My husband lost all his forms of identification and in his eyes he doesn’t exist at all,” she told KITV.

But officials from the city are standing firm, saying the lawsuit does not affect their plans. Crews cleared a large section of one encampment last week and plan to clear a smaller section on Thursday.

"The Department of the Corporation Counsel will defend the city in this lawsuit vigorously," said Donna Leong, Honolulu’s corporation counsel, in a statement, the Associated Press reports.

Homelessness in Hawaii has been expanding dramatically, with an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people who are homeless at some point during the year, according to Hope Services Hawaii, a local shelter. Eleven percent of the homeless population are children, with the county able to provide shelter to 224 families during 2014, the shelter reports.

The conflict between the ACLU and the city has roots in local laws. Honolulu’s stored property ordinance requires the city to give 24 hours notice before clearing an encampment. It also allows people to store their belongings temporarily before retrieving them, which costs $200. But the ACLU’s suit says crews instead threw threw tents and household goods in the trash while clearing the encampments.

The suit lists several children as plaintiffs, identified by their initials, noting that they have gone hungry after food stored by their parents was thrown out.

“It's just more heartbreaking to see my daughter and what I got to tell her everyday after. 'Mommy what happened to this? Mommy what happened to that?' What do I tell her?" asked Ms. Martin.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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