Unsheltered homeless people on Oahu who do not have COVID-19 symptoms are being encouraged to isolate themselves in a new tent program run by the city, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced on Tuesday.

The program will allow homeless people to quarantine for 15 days in a place where they can keep their distance from others, which experts say is the key to containing the spread of the coronavirus. Those who don’t develop symptoms during those two weeks will be relocated to another site, according to Honolulu Police Capt. Mike Lambert.

“What we want to do is try to provide the homeless an opportunity to come somewhere safe where we can control their ability to, perhaps, infect the community in the event that they have it and do not know that,” Lambert said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday.

“It’s a site for them to come, to be safe, to be screened by medical professionals, and in the event they do develop symptoms, to take them to an appropriate place.”

Unsheltered homeless people can isolate themselves at Keehi Lagoon Park, the city announced on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage, or POST, program opened its first location on Monday in Keehi Lagoon Park near the airport. Run by the police department, the program has 18 tents that can serve between 40 and 50 people if families share tents. 

Food will be provided to participants twice a day, and restrooms are on site, Lambert said. The city is in talks with the Department of Health to conduct COVID-19 screenings on a daily basis, he said. 

As a “low barrier” site, POST will allow homeless people to bring their pets, Lambert said. Large dogs will be muzzled.

Participants will be able to come and go for the first few days of the program but then the two-week quarantine will begin, according to Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, which coordinates Oahu’s homeless services. At that point, if they leave, they won’t be able to come back.

POST will open in other locations throughout the island, according to Lambert, but he wouldn’t say where.

Homeless people who do have symptoms may be directed to the city’s facility on Kaaahi Street in Iwilei, which is being operated by the state. 

Those who complete the 15-day quarantine at a POST location without symptoms will be moved to a larger “blue site” for people considered “low risk,” Lambert said. At that location, which he did not identify, social service providers will work to connect clients to shelters.

“Right now, some of our shelter services are apprehensive about taking people directly from the street out of fear of bringing COVID into the shelter,” Lambert said.

The “blue site” will also be a set of tents but will have looser restrictions, according to Honolulu Housing Director Marc Alexander.

One obstacle is that the shelters are already overwhelmed. Oahu’s shelters are reducing their capacity to allow for more social distancing in their facilities and say they’re desperate for the state to immediately open up more shelter options. The Institute for Human Services, for instance, has halted new intakes entirely, its director said last week.

“If this helps them allay that fear and feel really safe and hopefully get connected with (a service provider), that’s the best case scenario we can get from this.” — Laura Thielen, Partners In Care

Service providers are working to place current shelter occupants into actual housing to free up shelter space, according to Thielen.

It’s unclear how long participants could end up staying at the blue site if there is a holdup in creating shelter space, according to Alexander. He said officials intend to open a new shelter facility “soon.”

Thielen is hoping POST can help unsheltered homeless people, many of whom are scared amid news of the virus and may have been resistant to accepting help before.

“If this helps them allay that fear and feel really safe and hopefully get connected with (a service provider), that’s the best case scenario we can get from this,” she said.

To pay for the COVID-19 tent program, Honolulu is repurposing some of the $6 million in state ohana zone funding that was intended for HONU, its homeless navigation center. Through that program, homeless people who might have received a ticket from police for obstructing a sidewalk could instead accept transportation to HONU.

The facility provided overnight shelter and connections to housing, among other services. Since it opened in December, Lambert said HONU has placed about 300 people into housing.

HONU is now on pause as tents and personnel shift to the POST program.

“We are hoping that federal monies will become available so the HONU project can be replenished, at least financially, and once we get out of COVID, we can go back to our previous mission,” Lambert said.

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