These days, the homeless who had crowded large parts of Honolulu are, to a considerable extent, gone.

Share story

HONOLULU — Anna Sullivan is prohibited from sitting on a sidewalk. She cannot wander off to find food without worrying that the police might seize her shopping cart. She cannot sleep on Waikiki Beach without fear of being rousted.

Sullivan, 45, has been homeless for eight years since she got out of prison. But these days she tries to keep away from Waikiki, the bustling tourist district she once used as her home.

“Tickets, tickets, tickets,” she said, already looking weary at the start of her morning, sipping a cup of iced coffee as she sat on a bench by the beach. “The cops give you a ticket to keep you moving. And then you have to pay the ticket for sleeping in the park. It gets to you.”

Two years ago, Honolulu, for all its opulence and appeal to tourists, was a nationally known hub of homelessness: people sprawling on benches and sidewalks, panhandling, guarding piles of tents and clothes, sleeping in doorways and moving around aimlessly. Business leaders described the atmosphere as a fundamental threat to the tourist-based economy.

These days, the homeless are, to a considerable extent, gone.

The change came after Honolulu responded with force to what the governor described as a state of emergency, passing tough criminal laws and at the same time sending teams of social workers to help the homeless move into shelters. The tourist industry put up money to cover airfare for homeless people from the mainland who said they were ready to go home.

Now it is possible to spend hours wandering Waikiki and Chinatown, where hundreds of homeless people once settled, and encounter only the occasional reminder that Hawaii has the highest per-capita homeless population in the nation.

A battery of laws that effectively criminalize homelessness is sweeping the nation, embraced by places such as Orlando, Fla.; Santa Cruz, Calif.; and Manchester, N.H. By the end of 2014, 100 cities had made it a crime to sit on a sidewalk, a 43 percent increase over 2011, according to a survey of 187 major U.S. cities by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (Seattle was first with such a ban, in 1993.) The number of cities that banned sleeping in cars jumped to 81 from 37. There have been laws outlawing panhandling and authorizing the removal of tent camps.

“Compassionate” effort

Honolulu’s mayor, Kirk Caldwell, coined the phrase “compassionate disruption,” because the measures are accompanied by outreach programs.

But there seems little doubt among city officials and the homeless themselves that the change on the streets is primarily a result of laws that made it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks, with criminal penalties if warnings are ignored in Waikiki and in Chinatown. That followed laws that let authorities seize belongings left in public spaces and that closed many parks and beaches at night. So far, there have been only a handful of arrests; the strategy is to use the threat of tickets and jail to prod homeless people to go someplace else.

“I would tell you emphatically that it’s working really, really well,” said George Szigeti, head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “The No. 1 reason that people were saying they would not come back to Hawaii was because of homelessness.”

Some social workers say the specter of enforcement makes it easier to persuade the homeless to try a night in a shelter bed or enter a drug-treatment program. Other advocates have sued the city over some of its approaches.

While homeless people have largely vanished from crackdown areas, many have just gone into the dense greenery up Diamond Head Road, or to out-of-the-way alleys and remote corners of parks.

In interviews, homeless men and women displayed a mastery of the intricacies of state and city laws, of how some sidewalks are covered and others are not and of how beaches open at 5 a.m., allowing a few hours to sleep before it gets too hot. They know not to smoke a cigarette on a beach or push a shopping cart along the sidewalk in Waikiki, prohibited activities that will draw the attention of the police.

The sidewalk ordinance took effect at the end of 2014, and through March 1 of this year the police had issued 16,215 warnings and written 534 summonses.

The City Council last year expanded the sit-lie ordinance to include 16 neighborhoods, putting more territory out of bounds. Asked whether he would advise other cities to embrace the approach, Caldwell responded without hesitation. “Yes,” he said. “Sit-lie is not about homelessness,” he added. “Sit-lie is about commerce. It’s about keeping sidewalks open for people to do business.”

Clearing the streets

Kaka’ako is a retail neighborhood two miles up the shoreline from Waikiki, and not a place where tourists tend to stray.

Last summer, its sidewalks and patches of grass were covered with tents, sleeping bags, shopping carts, folding chairs and piles of belongings. Merchants and residents in Kaka’ako complained that the influx was a result of the campaign to push people out of Chinatown and Waikiki.

So, a week after Labor Day, teams of city sanitation workers showed up, carrying brooms and shovels. They were followed by garbage trucks. As the police and the homeless looked on, the workers cleared the sidewalks and streets, throwing everything into the trucks.

Most Read Nation & World Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in U.S. District Court, charging that Honolulu was violating the constitutional rights of people struggling to survive.

The court agreed. In January, Honolulu signed a stipulation promising to wait 45 days before destroying belongings it seizes, allowing people a chance to retrieve them, and to guarantee 24 hours’ notice, in most cases, before clearing sidewalks and parks.

The sweeps have gone on: Eight-person crews go out five days a week.

Some applaud program

The punitive laws are applauded here by some advocates of the homeless.

“A lot of people say these laws don’t work,” said Kimo Carvalho, director of community relations with the Institute for Human Services. “But as a service provider, we advocated for these laws because our homeless outreach teams need to motivate clients to take action.”

Two years ago, the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association gave $500,000 to the Institute for Human Services on a promise the institute could cut the homeless population in Waikiki in half. The money went to pay for outreach teams, a shuttle to take people to a shelter for a shower, clean clothes and food, and the airline-relocation program.

“This is our economic engine. We absolutely had to do this,” said Szigeti, the head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

In 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 7,620 people as homeless in Hawaii, whose population totals 1.4 million. The vast majority are in Honolulu.

There were 559 men and women living on the streets of Waikiki and Chinatown when the program began in November 2014. As of early March, that population had been slashed by 392, Carvalho said: 219 had been placed in temporary or permanent housing ­— an additional 173 had been flown out.