Rep. Quixote and the vanishing turd

Gene Ward's nonsensical urine bill still won't do anything to remedy our state's houselessness epidemic, no matter how much he believes in it.

Will Caron

Today, Rep. Gene Ward (R–Hawaiʻi Kai) released the following statement in response to criticisms of his “Urine-Free Zones” bill (HB 1595) in media outlets including The Hawaii Independent.

Currently, there are no laws on the books that allow for the involuntarily commitment of individuals who are mentally ill or drug addicted or alcoholic, who are not breaking the law, into rehabilitation programs where they can receive the help they desperately need. HB1595 adds to the penal code in order to gain the voluntary compliance necessary to provide for the mental and medical treatment for those who desire it.

The main point of this legislation is to allow the chronically homeless who are incapacitated and unable to help themselves to seek treatment instead of paying a fine or going to jail. Urinating in public is just one symptom of these conditions, and this measure helps address these concerns.

After a week long discussion of this legislation, I’m discouraged that some in the media miss the compassionate part of the bill and how it will make treatment of the homeless, legal. As long as there is no legal way to involuntarily commit a person to get treatment, a bill like this and others are necessary. The vast majority of the chronically homeless are simply unable to help themselves and the government must express some tough love with a bill like this.

Let’s try to unpack this gem of a toxic, quixotic statement.

Ward begins with a simple premise: there are no laws that allow for “involuntary commitment” of houseless individuals with mental health and drug addiction problems. Therefore, he argues, we should create a new law specifically designed to target and penalize houseless people for a compulsory behavior that is a symptom of chronic houselessness in order to present them with an impossible choice: pay a fine you can’t afford, go to prison (because we have tons of room in our correctional facilities) or join a treatment program. Thus, the law would simulate “voluntary compliance” when, in fact, it’s really just a roundabout way of institutionalizing poor people with or without their compliance.

Look, I get it. I don’t want houseless people to urinate on the sides of buildings either. But guess what: no law is going to stop people from doing it. I’m certain that Rep. Ward is aware of the fact that all animals have to relieve themselves of waste generated through consumption of food and water. It’s not a choice. Urinating in public may be a symptom of chronic houselessness (or, really, just houselessness in general), but this is because houseless people—and I can’t believe I have to say this—do not have houses. Or, therefore, toilets. Whether a houseless person has a mental health issue, a drug addiction or is completely competent and clean, but just down on their luck, at some point they are going to need to go shi-shi.

So the main point of this bill is not to “allow the chronically homeless who are incapacitated and unable to help themselves ... seek treatment,” nor does it “address” the problem of houselessness or the public health issue of public urination and defecation. The main point of this bill is to create a law that houseless people will have no choice but to break so that we can round them up, put them away and not have to think about them.

Rep. Ward claims that the “vast majority of chronically homeless are simply unable to help themselves.” According to the state, chronically houseless people are people living in a place not meant for human habitation, in a safe haven or in an emergency shelter; and who can be diagnosed with a one or more conditions including (but not limited to) substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, or chronic physical illness or disability; and who have been living as described above continuously for at least 12 months, or on at least four separate occasions in the last 3 years. The further subset of people within this category that—even should they receive offers of help from government and nonprofit programs (which is, currently, a dubious assumption at best)—would be “unable to help themselves” and, therefore, must be forced into programs, is far smaller.

In 2016, the state estimated that there were 1,949 chronically houseless individuals within the State of Hawaiʻi. The same year, there were an estimated 7,921 houseless individuals in total, statewide. How many of these people has Gene Ward actually spoken to? (Listing their locations on a GPS map doesn’t count.) Where is his data to back up his claims about these people? And where can I find blinders as big as the ones he must be wearing to be able to completely ignore the socioeconomic factors that render people chronically houseless in the first place?

Based on the true intent of this bill, Rep. Ward must fall into the common category of people who view the houseless not as people, but as objects. Research suggests this dehumanization of the houseless is extremely common. It explains why Rep. Ward wants to create a blanket criminalization law to punish houseless people, the vast majority of whom would greatly prefer to use a toilet, if they had the option.

The bill, therefore, proposes to violate the constitutional and basic human rights of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised group of our people because Rep. Ward and his supporters can’t be bothered to make the concerted effort that would be necessary to actually address the problem. There is nothing compassionate about this bill at all, and Rep. Ward is being disingenuous, at best, by claiming that “tough love” will actually help these people.

Here’s a better idea: invest in outreach programs like the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) bill (SB 108) and fund nonprofits to train volunteers to make consistent, effective, truly compassionate forays into houseless encampments and areas like Chinatown, where lots of folks are living on the street, to bring food and water to houseless people, while simultaneously educating them about the treatment programs that are available. We should also probably create some more treatment programs (for Sancho Panza’s sake) so that we can actually provide the services Rep. Ward claims to want to provide. These programs would dovetail with other diversion programs designed to keep at-risk youth and minor drug offenders out of our overcrowded criminal justice system.

It would also be an excellent idea to create more public bathrooms in urban areas like Chinatown, Mōʻiliʻili and Kaimukī, where houseless people have been forced to relocate after almost a decade of “compassionate disruption” policies that evicted them from the beach parks they previously occupied. (Note: the word “compassionate” in this context, once again, means absolutely dick.) (Note: houseless people used to occupy beach parks, at least partially, because of the availability of public restrooms.) (Note: forcing them out of beach parks like Ala Moana and Waikīkī was, again, an example of the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality of lawmakers like Rep. Ward.) (Note: the only conclusion to be drawn is that tourists and small business owners matter, while the poor and the houseless do not.)

We could even hire some of the houseless folks living in these areas to act as caretakers for bathroom facilities, providing them with some income as well as a community-based diversion point from which competent houseless people could help other houseless people with mental health and drug abuse problems—the subset Rep. Ward believes makes up the “majority” of chronically houseless people—to find diversion into appropriate programs voluntarily, while simultaneously maintaining the viability of these facilities for tourists and residents alike.

If Rep. Ward is “discouraged” by the treatment his idea has received in this media outlet and elsewhere, he should take a cue from those criticisms and become a true champion for comprehensive and effective solutions to houselessness. He should be demanding that minimum wage legislation pass this year; that tax fairness legislation pass this year; that affordable housing legislation pass this year. He should be campaigning against the creation of a new, billion-dollar prison and demanding that such funds be used to create restorative justice programs, community-based diversion initiatives, comprehensive and coordinated medical treatment centers, outreach and education programs and alternative living arrangements for those who choose to remain outside the mainstream of society. Models exist for dealing with all these issues. Inclusive programming, not further disenfranchisement through the criminal justice system, is the only way to provide real help for our houseless brothers and sisters.

Creating a law you know people will have no choice but to break so that you can trap them into forced institutionalization is literally inhumane. And to criminalize people further for a low-level offense at a time when our jails are bursting at the seams and we are over-incarcerating at staggering rates is incredibly foolish. Dressing up in armor to go joust at windmills is a metaphorically accurate way to describe Gene Ward’s proposal to “address” the “concerns” about houselessness. And it’s time for him to come back down to Earth.