Corporation counsel responds to ACLU letter criticizing county’s decision to remove homeless camp

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald The lot behind Agasa Furniture & Music Store is blocked off Tuesday in Hilo.

Hawaii County’s top attorney responded to a letter by the American Civil Liberties Union criticizing the county’s decision to remove a downtown Hilo homeless camp in April.

On April 7, multiple county agencies ordered 12 people living on a vacant lot at 117 Punahoa St. near Hilo Farmers Market to leave the premises before cordoning off the property.


The move came a day after the 3rd Circuit Court granted a motion transferring ownership of the property to the county after more than a year of mismanagement by its owners.

In a letter delivered to the county April 30, the ACLU of Hawaii demanded the county cease any further “sweeps of houseless encampments in the county” at least until the current COVID-19 pandemic ends, and called the county’s actions “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Should the county fail to take such action, the letter warns, the ACLU of Hawaii “stands ready to respond appropriately, as they have done before, in defense of civil rights, and against unlawful government action.”

In particular, the ACLU took issue with the short notice given to the camp’s inhabitants. County agents gave the residents only 45 minutes to leave, separating most from their personal property without sufficient time to find a safe place to go, a situation exacerbated by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter also argues that the county was premature in its actions, and should have waited until the 3rd Circuit Court entered the order transferring the property to the county on April 21. But even if it could be argued that the court made an oral motion April 6, that motion still would have required the county to wait 10 days before taking action, the letter posits.

However, County Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela delivered a response to the ACLU on Monday, challenging the organization’s characterization of events.

“The county does not conduct sweeps against houseless individuals,” Kamelamela’s letter read.

“‘Enforcement’ is such a broad term,” Kamelamela told the Tribune-Herald on Tuesday. “I don’t know what they’re requesting we do.”

Kamelamela said it doesn’t make sense to freeze all homeless-related law enforcement actions, explaining that, for example, private businesses on Kamehameha Avenue frequently seek police assistance to remove homeless squatters from their storefronts in order to sanitize the area.

The results of such actions are invariably temporary and typically do not lead to charges being filed, and Kamelamela questioned whether that kind of “enforcement action” would also be precluded by the ACLU’s demand.

“If a private landowner asks the police for help in removing someone from their property, does it make sense for the police not to take action?” Kamelamela asked.

Kamelamela’s letter also argues that the county acted within its legal bounds during the April 7 action — specifically, that the court granted the county authority to remove people from the site, that representatives of HOPE Services Hawaii offered its services to any camp resident who wanted them and that the residents took their shelters and personal property with them.

“If they wanted more time to take their personal property, the county would have given them more time,” Kamelamela wrote. “If they wanted assistance in storing their personal property, the county, and HOPE Services, provided such assistance.”

Kamelamela’s letter concludes with an admission that the county does not understand the ACLU’s demand and requests further information.


A representative of ACLU of Hawaii was not available for comment Tuesday.

Email Michael Brestovansky at

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