Maui News

Plaintiffs Sue Maui County and Mayor for “Houseless Sweeps” at ‘Āmala Place

By Wendy Osher
November 2, 2021, 12:05 PM HST
* Updated November 3, 5:24 AM
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Kanahā/Amala Place cleanup. PC: DLNR Hawaiʻi

A lawsuit has been filed against the mayor and County of Maui arguing that the seizure of houseless peoples’ shelters and belongings at ‘Āmala  Place near Kanahā Beach Park without first providing a hearing “violated their constitutional rights.”

The plaintiffs, Sonia Davis, Jessica Lau, Lauralee B. Riedell, and Adam M. Walton are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaiʻi. The lawsuit, which was filed on Oct. 20, challenges the decision of Mayor Michael Victorino and the County of Maui to evict people and their belongings from Āmala Place in Kahului during the week of Sept. 20, 2021. 

The ACLU of Hawai‘i said it previously sent a demand letter to the County during the sweep, requesting it immediately cease action, calling the sweep “unconstitutional,” but the organization says it never received a response.

Maui Now sought comment from the County of Maui, Office of the Mayor on the lawsuit. A county spokesperson responded saying, “The County of Maui does not comment on pending litigation.”

In earlier press releases and commentary, the County of Maui reported that crews removed 58 tons of solid waste and 54 derelict vehicles during the cleanup, and said actions taken “were sympathetic to care for those in need.” State officials said they were concerned about the potential health hazards from trash and waste in the area of Kanahā Pond.

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An executive with the Family Life Center on Maui said the Kanahā/‘Āmala Place area has been a part of the agency’s regular route for outreach teams who have gone down there for the last two or three years. At least two dozen individuals from the encampment moved into emergency shelter during the cleanup at either the Family Life Center, Ka Hale A Ke Ola or the Wahi Hoʻomalu ʻo Wailuku (WHOW) project, according to earlier reports.

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In previous reports, county officials have said that in December of 2020, there were nearly 80 individuals who were living in the encampment along ‘Āmala Place and that response from social workers had been enhanced prior to the cleanup.

The ACLU contends that plaintiffs, and about 60 other people, were “forced to vacate the area or face arrest.” The lawsuit claims written requests for a contested case hearing were filed before the sweeps began, but were not answered. 

Joshua Wisch, Executive Director of the ACLU of Hawai’i said, “The September sweep at Kanahā has only made things worse. It has made the Plaintiffs’ lives more stressful and it has made finding adequate housing more difficult for them. It has done nothing to address the challenge of houselessness on Maui, and it was done illegally. If the Plaintiffs had simply been provided a contested case hearing, as they lawfully requested, the trauma, stress, loss of property, and violation of constitutional rights could have been avoided.”

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The organization further claims that the County’s actions, taken without affording Plaintiffs a hearing, “violated the rights of people who have no other viable place to reside—rights including procedural due process rights, the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to be free from unlawful agency action.”

Wookie Kim, Legal Director of the ACLU of Hawai’i said, “Our constitutions prohibit the government from taking people’s property without due process… the County gave them a defective paper notice mere days before the sweep began, and it did not grant our clients’ written requests for a contested case hearing. In acting this way, the County appears to believe that our clients are not entitled to constitutional protections because they are houseless and reside in public spaces. We filed this lawsuit to challenge that notion. We would like the Hawaiʻi courts to clarify—as the federal courts already have—that people do not lose their constitutional rights simply because they do not live in a house.”

On Oct. 27, 2021 the Plaintiffs filed a motion for leave to add their declarations to the record.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue a declaratory judgment that “each plaintiff’s procedural due process rights were violated and that their right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures was violated by the sweep, and that the county was required to conduct a contested case for the plaintiffs.” It also asks the court to enter an order requiring the county to hold a contested case hearing for the plaintiffs, and to require that, before any future sweeps occur, affected persons will receive “adequate, sufficient” notice and an opportunity for a contested case hearing if they request one.

Jessica Lau, a 52-year-old woman of Hawaiian, Filipino, and Chinese descent from Maui is among the plaintiffs represented in the case. The ACLU says she previously worked as a driver and tour guide, “but she began experiencing health issues from long days of driving and, around the same time, had to give up her income to help pay rent for her disabled 30-year-old son. As a result, she was evicted in early 2020 for nonpayment.”

Houseless for the first time in her life, Lau began sleeping in her car, according to the ACLU. “Even though I was houseless, I knew I needed to get my paycheck to get gas and pay bills and do what I need to do to get back on my feet … In fact, for most of the pandemic, I have been working two jobs at a time,” she said.

“People keep saying that houseless people don’t want shelter. That’s not true. I want to find some kind of housing. In fact, I had been calling the shelters every day for weeks and they weren’t able to find shelter or alternative housing for me,” said Lau.

“Despite their best efforts, the plaintiffs had been unable to find a safer, more secure alternative to residing at Kanahā Beach Park,” according to an ACLU press release. As one of the plaintiffs points out, it is a fine line between having a stable place to live and having just one set-back that erases that.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 20 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.
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