UPDATE: On Monday afternoon, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced the suspension of so-called “sweeps.” Public restrooms at city parks will remain closed.
To help contain the spread of the coronavirus, homeless encampments should not be dismantled by police, and public restrooms should be open and stocked with hygiene products for unsheltered people.
That’s the advice Honolulu received from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday.
But as of Monday morning, Mayor Kirk Caldwell had not committed to following that guidance. On Sunday afternoon, the city called off “compassionate disruption” of encampments scheduled for the following day. By Monday afternoon, the mayor suspended these actions going forward except for cases that present an “imminent danger to public health and safety.”
Restrooms in public parks throughout Oahu remain closed and water turned off.
“Our administration is reviewing those recommendations by the CDC,” the mayor said at a Sunday afternoon press conference announcing an emergency “stay at home, work from home” order. “We’ll be taking action based on those guidelines in the near future.”
In guidance posted publicly on Sunday, the CDC advises the following:
“In this case, it’s actually safer for people to be outside,” said Katy Miller, a regional coordinator for the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The mayor’s decision not to immediately follow the CDC’s advice alarmed homeless service providers and advocates who say bucking the federal guidance puts everyone at risk.
James Pakele, an advocate for the Puuhonua o Waianae houseless community, called Caldwell’s inaction “borderline criminal.”
“A chain is only as strong as the weakest link,” he said. “You need to help the weakest links.”
Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Many are elderly, have chronic, preexisting health problems, and have limited access to hygiene services and health care, advocates say. In shelters, they have no choice but to be in close proximity at a time when public health officials are recommending people stay six feet apart.
Honolulu’s practice of forcing homeless people to choose jail or the shelter system – which doesn’t have enough beds to house them – is inhumane under normal circumstances, said Joshua Wisch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
But during a pandemic, he said it’s especially nonsensical.
“You are making it more likely that these people will actually get sick by putting them into shelters that are already crowded,” he said. “Or you’re going to take people sleeping outside and put them into an overcrowded jail where they’re going to be more likely to get sick and more likely the people who work at the jail and those people’s families are going to get sick.”
Wisch is concerned about how the city defines threats to “public health and safety” which could justify further sweeps. The enforcement actions are a health and safety hazard in and of themselves, he said.
“The CDC guidelines say camps should not be swept unless there are individual housing units available,” he said. “If they’re operating outside of those guidelines, it would appear they’re violating the guidelines.”
Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said the city is working to provide mobile hygiene centers to homeless encampments “in the near future” but wouldn’t specify when.
“We got the CDC guidance and we’re looking at that,” he said. “We want to look at it thoughtfully, in conversation, and we’re looking at various options.”
For now, park bathrooms will remain closed with no indication of when they’ll reopen.
“We want to make sure that there aren’t unintended consequences by simply opening up bathrooms willy nilly without ensuring that they have proper sanitation and hygiene protocols,” Alexander said.
On Monday morning, a worker was spotted boarding up the entryway to a bathroom in Waimanalo. On Monday evening, the mayor’s office said a Revive + Refresh mobile hygiene facility was scheduled to be installed at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park offering toilets, showers and handwashing stations. Asked about other parks, Caldwell Communications Director Alex Zannes said the Waimanalo location is the “first deployment” in the city’s response to COVID-19.
Cutting unsheltered people off from one of the only places they can wash their hands puts people’s lives in danger, Wisch said.
“We are being told every time we turn on the TV or listen to the radio: Make sure you are washing your hands for 20 seconds while humming ‘Happy Birthday’ to yourself two times,” he said. “Even when service providers go out and provide soap to these folks, it’s useless because they can’t engage in the same type of basic hygiene we’re all being told to do to preserve our health.”
The CDC guidelines are “crystal clear,” Wisch said.
“The city is going out of its way to violate the CDC guidelines now,” he said. “I don’t understand.”
One homeless man who has been living in Ala Moana Regional Park since January said the city’s closure of bathrooms and outdoor showers is degrading. The 33-year-old man, who goes by the nickname “Hazzard,” said police officers have told him he needs to leave, but he has nowhere to go. Shelters have bed bugs and rules he finds hard to follow, he said, while the street allows him more freedom.
“They’re harassing us and telling us we’ve got to go, but where?” he asked. “I’m tired of houseless people getting messed with because we are houseless and poor.”
The lack of bathrooms means people have to do their business “in the open,” he said.
Another resident of the park, 52-year-old Lei Watson, said she noticed signs up saying the water was turned off, but she didn’t understand why. No one came to tell her about the pandemic or social distancing.
“That’s very important to hear,” she said.
Some service providers have asked their homeless outreach workers to stop canvassing to protect their health, according to Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, which helps coordinate Oahu’s homeless services. Some groups are in the process of teaming up with medical workers to get essential information out to homeless individuals, she said.
Asked where Oahu’s homeless people are supposed to wash up, the mayor’s office last week directed people to the shelter system, the Punawai Rest Stop hygiene facility which is offering extended hours or HONU, the city’s traveling overnight shelter and mobile navigation center. But all of those places combined can’t take on the island’s homeless population, estimated to be over 4,400 people, over half of whom are unsheltered.
“That’s an absurd recommendation, just ridiculous,” said Marya Grambs, a board member for Partners In Care. “It’s bad for the homeless and bad for the public at large too. It’s pretty devastating.”
Alexander acknowledged these places cannot accommodate “everyone all at once.”
The CDC also recommends establishing housing for both homeless people who test positive for COVID-19 and those who are awaiting test results. Last week, Caldwell announced the availability of a Kaaahi Street facility for up to 60 homeless people who test positive. The Department of Health has been assigned to handle operations there, Caldwell said.
However, no location has been designated for people suspected of having the virus who are waiting for confirmation. The mayor said he is in talks with hotels and owners of vacant buildings to create more capacity for people who become ill and need to be isolated.
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