Decriminalizing Houselessness in Hawaiʻi report by Asha DuMonthier by request for the ACLU of Hawaiʻi.
Hawai‘i has one of the highest rates of houselessness in the United States, with Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders composing the largest group of unhoused residents. Rather than focus on the root causes of this racialized crisis, public officials have treated houselessness as a crime, tasking local police departments with sweeping, citing, and arresting unhoused individuals at alarming rates. As a result, far too many people experiencing houselessness in Hawai‘i have harmful interactions with the police instead of or before getting access to housing and mental health services. The efforts of public officials to rebrand these sweeps—whether using
Orwellian terms like “compassionate disruption” or simply offensive terms like “sanitation outreach”—do nothing to change the illegal,unconstitutional, and counterproductive nature of these actions.
The criminalization of houselessness is costing the public. Millions of taxpayer dollars are spent each year on police sweeps and other enforcement actions that are wholly ineffective at reducing, let alone ending, houselessness. Meanwhile, there is an acute shortage of permanent housing support—the top service need reported by unhoused individuals. In relying on policing to respond to houselessness, Hawai‘i policymakers are missing an opportunity to use public resources in ways that could meet the needs of
the unhoused, as well as those of the broader community.
This report presents pathways for Hawai‘i to decriminalize houselessness and invest in solutions that promote racial equity. These pathways are informed by interviews with service providers, government officials, community activists, and individuals who have experienced houselessness, as well as from data and documents acquired through Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) Records Requests.