ACLU confused by county’s defense for removal of Hilo homeless camp

The American Civil Liberties Union has called Hawaii County’s defense of the April removal of a downtown Hilo homeless camp “confusing.”

Late last month, the ACLU of Hawaii sent a letter to the county condemning the April 7 removal of a homeless camp from a vacant lot at 117 Punahoa St. near Hilo Farmers Market, an action which the ACLU called “illegal and unconstitutional,” as well as a danger to public health, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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The ACLU’s letter concluded with a demand that the county cease any further “sweeps of houseless encampments in the county” at least until the pandemic ends, or else face potential legal action.

On Monday, Hawaii County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela responded to that letter with a defense of the county’s actions and a request for further clarification regarding the ACLU’s demands.

But although the county and ACLU have been engaged in ongoing discussions about the issue, seeking to find an amicable solution, Wookie Kim, staff attorney for ACLU of Hawaii, said Kamelamela’s response is difficult to follow.

“He says he doesn’t know what we mean by ‘sweeps,’” Kim said. “But the letter makes clear that they do know what we mean.”

Kim said a sweep is generally understood to be “the forced disbanding of a group of houseless people,” which generally also includes the removal or destruction of their property. The April 7 incident — which the ACLU referred to as the Hilo Sweep in its letter — involved the removal of at least a dozen people from a lot, the removal of their shelters and the destruction of their abandoned property.

“It’s like that quote about pornography,” Kim said. “We know it when we see it.”

Kim pointed out that, elsewhere in his letter, Kamelamela definitively stated that Hawaii County does not conduct sweeps, which contradicts his stated confusion about the meaning of sweeps.

“He says he doesn’t know what a sweep is, but also that there aren’t any sweeps in Hawaii County, and also somewhere else he writes that the police conduct sweeps,” said Kristen Alice, director of Community Relations for HOPE Services Hawaii, which was also critical of the Hilo Sweep.

While Kamelamela questioned on Tuesday whether police action against squatters on private property would be considered a sweep — and therefore forbidden by the ACLU demand — Kim said the ACLU is primarily concerned with actions against homeless individuals on public property.

Alice said the private property argument is a “distraction,” adding that trespassers or squatters are different from an established camp on public property, which the Hilo camp was.

Kim said he does not intend to debate whether the camp should have been built — unpermitted structures had stood on the site for more than a year, ultimately leading to the county seizing control of the lot from the previous recalcitrant owners. However, he said, regardless of the legality of the camp, its residents still have rights.

“When a bank forecloses on a property, the property’s tenants can’t be immediately evicted,” Kim said. The Hilo Sweep occurred only one day after the county seized control of the property.

Should the county continue to conduct such actions against the homeless, Kim said litigation is a last-resort option.

A similar case in 2015, Martin v. City and County of Honolulu, reached a settlement prohibiting Honolulu from immediately disposing of homeless people’s property that would be considered a “sidewalk-nuisance,” among other things.

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Kim reiterated that the ACLU appreciates that Hawaii County is open to discussion and said he hopes the it will avoid any further actions against the homeless population while the pandemic continues. However, he noted, the county sent a notice at the end of April ordering homeless individuals within Lehia Beach Park to leave by today or face potential arrest.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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