As COVID-19 spreads throughout Oahu, homeless service providers are desperate for the state to provide additional shelters to allow residents to keep their distance from one another – guidance that public health officials say is a matter of life and death.

Congregate shelters, where clients sleep and eat within feet of each other, are “my biggest concern right now,” said Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners In Care, which coordinates Oahu’s homeless services.

While unsheltered homeless people are being advised to space out their tents, shelter living makes social distancing – keeping people 6 feet or more apart – almost impossible, Thielen said. To accomplish it, she said congregate shelters will need to reduce their capacity by 50% or more.

At the Institute for Human Services shelter for men, staff spaced out bunk beds to allow for more social distancing and reduce the chances of spreading COVID-19. To do this, people in need are being turned away. Courtesy: Institute for Human Services/2020

We all agree that they need to do that, but where are we going to put them?” she asked. “There have been several ideas floated, and I know it’s being worked on, but as every day passes, I get really fearful that we’re going to get a spread in those congregate shelters, and it’s going to be a disaster.”

Honolulu and state officials say they’re working on creating more homeless shelter space, but they’ve announced no specific plans and have not committed to any timeline.

“We are trying to move forward as quickly as possible,” said Scott Morishige, Gov. David Ige’s coordinator on homelessness.

Scott Morishige Briefing of Homeless Solutions Capitol.
Scott Morishige says the state is moving as fast as possible to ease crowding at shelters. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A small group is being moved into transitional housing to free up shelter space, Morishige said. Efforts to relocate larger groups to maximize social distancing are still in the works, he said. Spaces in facilities owned by nonprofits and hotels are being considered.

The state is limited not only by financial resources but also by staffing, according to Morishige. Turnover in the homeless services sector was high before the pandemic, he said. Overflow sites would need to be staffed by an adequate number of qualified personnel who have the personal protective equipment they need to keep themselves and others safe.

Hawaii’s health department has not announced any coronavirus cases within Oahu’s homeless population, but without widespread testing, the disease could be spreading undetected.

Thielen worries the state is responding too slowly and is risking catastrophic consequences.

“I’m hoping that they’re moving quickly behind the scenes, but I haven’t heard of a space that’s been solidified yet,” she said.

‘Frustrating’ Delays

Under pressure to create more physical distance, several Oahu homeless shelters have stopped taking new clients. Those who are turned away have to fend for themselves on the street.

“We only have room for so many,” said Patricio Battani, director of health equity of Waikiki Health, which runs the Next Step Shelter in Kakaako.

The Institute for Human Services also closed intakes as of Tuesday, said executive director Connie Mitchell.

We’re trying to reduce the risk within our shelter,” she said.

Empty Bunk Beds at Institute of Human Services IHS.
Beds at IHS are usually close together, as shown in this photo from early March. The nonprofit is now working to space them out more. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

IHS staffers have tried to distance clients from one another, Mitchell said.

Kupuna and other vulnerable people have been separated from the general population. Those experiencing any symptoms of illness, not necessarily COVID-19, have their own area as well. The shelters have extended meal times to limit the number of people at tables at any one time.

Mitchell said a reduction in shelter crowding needed to happen “yesterday.”

RYSE, a youth shelter in Kailua, is also limiting intakes to maintain the recommended distance among clients and staff, according to executive director Carla Houser. The nonprofit is leaving open a half dozen spots that ordinarily would go to young people in need.

“You’re tasked with keeping your most vulnerable youth safe, and you know there are kids out there who could really use a hot shower and a meal,” she said. “It’s pretty gut-wrenching.”

The lack of additional shelter space is particularly dire for domestic violence survivors seeking a haven, said Angelina Mercado, executive director of the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Service providers have been bracing for an influx of cases amid forced home isolation, Mercado said. It’s a trend that is already playing out elsewhere.

While she said she’s had productive conversations with Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, she hasn’t been given any indication of when the state will make more space available.

“It’s definitely frustrating for all of us,” she said.

Exploring Solutions

The ideal response would be to move groups of people out of shelters to somewhere they could socially distance themselves and access medical services, according to Thielen. At-risk individuals like kupuna and those with compromised immune systems could go to new locations while lower-risk people could stay at the regular shelters, Thielen said. That general strategy is already being used in San Fransisco, which announced a plan last week to relocate some shelter clients.

Cities around the country and the world are also rushing to place masses of homeless people into hotels to isolate them.

Royal Hawaiian Hotel sandwiched by larger Waikiki Hotels. Sheraton Hotel1
Hawaii’s hotel industry is eager to provide shelter, but the state hasn’t asked for their help, an industry spokesman said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Homeless people in Connecticut are moving quickly into hotels after the state’s governor issued an executive order requiring shelters to relocate enough residents to enable social distancing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that means keeping shelter beds at least 3 feet apart.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently allocated $50 million to purchase or lease hotel and motel rooms to isolate homeless people. In New Orleans, homeless people who test negative for COVID-19 are moved into hotels, a local news station reported.

Honolulu has more than 30,000 hotel rooms that could easily accommodate Oahu’s estimated 4,400 homeless people, about half of whom are unsheltered. The industry would be happy to do so and get some of its employees back to work, according to Kekoa McClellan, Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association. 

“As soon as there is a request, the industry will act expeditiously to fill the need,” he said.

Other solutions are being discussed. Councilwoman Kymberly Pine has proposed the development of 6,000 tiny homes which she said could be funded by federal disaster relief money and used by homeless people and medical workers who want to isolate themselves from their families.

“Once the pandemic is behind us, the tiny homes could then be made available as truly affordable housing,” Pine said in a statement on Tuesday.

The state is considering a lot of options, including hotel rooms, said Edward Mersereau, deputy director for the Hawaii Department of Health’s behavioral health administration.

“We have to make very strategic, important decisions about how we manage both sheltered and unsheltered populations,” he said. “The goal is to help with that social distancing but also do it in a way that doesn’t displace people all out into the community. It defeats the whole purpose of mitigating spread.”

The Kaaahi Street facility has space for screening, testing and quarantining of homeless people during the pandemic. Courtesy: City and County of Honolulu

While the homeless shelter strategy remains unclear, government officials have publicly discussed plans to expand medical services.

A Honolulu-owned facility on Kaaahi Street in Iwilei was scheduled to open Wednesday for screening, testing and quarantining homeless people. However, the facility is meant for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting test results, not those who are trying to isolate themselves in an effort to avoid catching it.

Morishige said the Kaaahi Street building was transformed into a medical operation in just a few days. The “extraordinarily fast” response is evidence of everyone’s commitment to serving this population, he said.

“It’s a good example of everyone coming together,” he said. 

State and federal officials are scoping out additional facilities that could be converted to medical triage sites for the general population, including the Blaisdell Center parking garage and the Hawaii Convention Center. It’s unclear, though, if those locations would be made available to homeless people for the purpose of isolation alone.

Laura Thielen.
PIC Director Laura Thielen worries the state isn’t moving fast enough to isolate the homeless population. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Mersereau said priority would be given to people who test positive and have mild to moderate symptoms and need to be monitored during quarantine but don’t need to be hospitalized. The second priority would be people awaiting test results, he said.

Despite the pandemic, homeless service providers are continuing to work on getting clients into permanent housing. That has only gotten more difficult, though, because “we’ve got a lot of scared landlords out there,” Thielen said.

“If we can get some big spaces set aside and really focus on decreasing all the numbers across the board of where people are congregating, that’ll be the single best way to hopefully stop the spread in the homeless community,” she said. “That will take a lot of pressure off all the providers.”

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