After a wave of criticism, Honolulu announced on Tuesday that it will reopen city park restrooms it closed last week – reversing a move that defied federal guidelines and left Oahu’s over 2,000 unsheltered homeless people with few hygiene options during a pandemic.

Beginning tomorrow, city bathrooms will again be open, the city said in a news release. The facilities could close again temporarily for “maintenance, cleaning, and/or renovations,” the notice said.

Honolulu boarded up bathrooms at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park. The parks department says facilities will be reopened Wednesday. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2020

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration made the announcement amid immense public pressure and after homeless advocates called a press conference to voice opposition to the decision. The news left community members somewhat relieved but confused.

“I’m glad to hear that,” said James Koshiba, a volunteer with the nonprofit Hui Aloha. “The question that leaves me with was why the bathrooms had to be closed in the first place.”

Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander said on Monday that the bathrooms were closed because “we’re trying to encourage people not to congregate in parks.” He cited the challenge of keeping the facilities sanitary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping public bathrooms open 24 hours a day and stocked with hygiene materials amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Rozlyn Sorgent, who lives at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park along with about 30 others, said seeing the public bathrooms boarded up and showers turned off made her angry. Some people had to use a bucket. One mother walked two miles with her children to the home of a family member to use a bathroom.

“Where did they expect us to use the toilet?” she asked.

The city was working on providing mobile hygiene facilities, Alexander said. A hygiene trailer run by the nonprofit Revive + Refresh was at Waimanalo on Monday night for about two hours, but Alexander offered no timeline for when they would be used islandwide.

Unsheltered people living at Waimanalo Bay Beach Park rely on the nearby public bathrooms. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat/2020

Meanwhile, restrooms at state parks and harbors are also closed in spite of the CDC guidance. The Department of Land and Natural Resources shuttered the facilities “in response to State social distancing guidelines,” said DLNR Communications Specialist AJ McWhorter.

People who live in the Puuhonua o Waianae community at the West Oahu harbor have scraped together funds for portable toilets for their community, but most unsheltered people don’t even have that, advocates said.

With bathrooms boarded up, homeless people like Steven Samuel De Gruy have had a hard time finding a restroom. He tried to visit HONU, the city’s homeless navigation center, but couldn’t find it. De Gruy, a disabled veteran who goes by “Zorro,” said he’s been trying in vain to contact public officials.

“That only shows, this is how we care about the people of Hawaii,” he said. “There are only certain people that we care about, and yet we want to claim we’re the Aloha State.” 

DLNR said it is “reevaluating” opening some of its restrooms to follow CDC guidance, McWhorter said. However, the agency is experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment for staff along with cleaning supplies and toilet paper. McWhorter said the state’s stay at home order also makes it difficult to repair and maintain facilities.

“We will consider reopening facilities that are high priority for public sanitation and where we have capacity and supplies,” he said.

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