During the COVID-19 outbreak, homeless people’s access to clean, well-stocked bathrooms is important for controlling the spread of the virus, federal health officials say.

With that in mind, Hui Aloha, a local nonprofit, is teaming up with the city, state and the homeless population to launch a bathroom stewardship program.

So-called Bathroom Brigades, led by team captains, will support bathrooms in six locations. Brigade captains will help monitor, disinfect and supplement cleaning by park and harbor staff, according to Hui Aloha. Supplies will be provided by donors recruited by Hui Aloha, which will coordinate operations. By providing soap, the group is filling a need that the Honolulu parks department has said it will not.

Homeless Encampment at Kakaako Gateway Park with tents.
With shelters reducing capacity, many homeless people on Oahu have nowhere to go but the street. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The nonprofit said it aims to support people who are unsheltered, including those who lose housing because of mass layoffs, early release from incarceration or dwindling “couch surfing” options.

Park bathrooms and showers are a lifeline for unhoused people in our communities, especially during COVID-19,” the nonprofit said in a program summary. 

Hui Aloha said it wants to help city and state staff in their effort to keep bathrooms open and safe. It also wants to build a sense of “shared kuleana” and pride within homeless encampments and foster working relationships between homeless people and the wider community.

Oahu’s overwhelmed homeless shelters have been forced to reduce capacity to enable social distancing, and the state has announced no plan to temporarily house people in new shelters or hotels, as other states have done.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if individual housing units are not available, homeless encampments should be left where they are and given 24-hour access to well-stocked public restrooms. The city and state initially defied those guidelines and closed bathrooms islandwide but has since opened many back up.

Hui Aloha’s pilot program will kick off at Waimanalo Beach Park, Ala Moana Regional Park, Kewalo Basin Harbor and Puuhonua O Waianae. The nonprofit plans to expand to three additional sites around April 15 and plans to develop a toolkit so other neighborhoods can replicate the effort.  

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