Honolulu will officially resume the clearing of homeless encampments next week to steer unsheltered people toward a quarantine tent program run by the police department, the mayor announced on Thursday.

The move comes weeks after the city said it would stop doing so-called “sweeps” in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency advises not disturbing encampments unless there are individual housing units available for people.

With the recent opening of the Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage program, or POST, the mayor said the city can continue with what he calls compassionate disruption.

“They endanger themselves and each other, and they endanger the broader population,” Caldwell said of unsheltered people who fail to keep the recommended social distance.

People living alongside Crane Park in Honolulu said police have eased up on enforcement lately. That may change.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Built at Keehi Lagoon Park, the POST program’s first “red zone” has been in lockdown since Sunday and will be quarantined for two weeks, according to Marc Alexander, Honolulu’s housing director.

There are 18 people there, 22 individuals in a second group, and two more cohorts being prepared, Alexander said. POST has a capacity of 80 and is designed for people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms. Homeless people who do and are awaiting test results may isolate at the city’s facility in Iwilei.

POST’s participants receive two meals a day and have access to bathrooms, showers, a pet kennel and storage for personal belongings. They are allowed to leave, but if they do, they can’t come back without starting from the beginning of the 15-day quarantine.

The mayor said he has received daily complaints about homeless people on the street not following public health advice during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is what happens where there is no enforcement,” he said.

That’s a faulty conclusion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

“All sweeps do is shuffle people around and disrupt people’s lives, and it’s counterproductive to the long-term goal of securing permanent housing for them,” said ACLU Policy Director Mandy Fernandes.

The number of unsheltered people has risen steadily during Caldwell’s tenure. In 2019, there were more than 4,400 homeless people on Oahu, over half of whom were unsheltered. Experts fear the total number of homeless people will rise as thousands lose their jobs amid the financial impact of the pandemic.

During the weeks without official sweeps, unsheltered homeless people continued to receive citations for blocking sidewalks or being present in closed parks. Where Ala Moana Regional Park meets Kewalo Basin Harbor, several homeless people told Civil Beat last week that officers repeatedly told them to move.

One homeless man named Scoki who had signed up to be a steward for the public bathrooms said cleaning supplies that were donated to him were confiscated by city employees last week.

“They took everything,” he said. “I was helping them out. They don’t care. They just take it.”

He said police officers told him and others to leave.

“They say, ‘Anywhere, but not here,'” he said. “We don’t know where to go.”

Aura Reyes, who does homeless outreach, said it makes no sense to continue sweeps during a pandemic when people are being told to shelter in place.

“It’s like they’re asking for the virus to be spread,” she said. “It’s putting everyone at risk, not only the homeless, but everyone else too.”

Civil Beat made repeated attempts to discuss enforcement actions with Police Chief Susan Ballard. A spokesperson said she was not available to speak by phone, and the department did not answer a detailed list of questions.

“Officers focus on an individual’s behavior, not residential status,” HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said in an emailed statement.

Asked if there is anywhere on Oahu where unsheltered people can legally sleep outside, Alexander offered one answer: POST.

“We invite people in a very special way to avail themselves of services, and POST in particular,” he said. “Once they refuse to do that, we have the opportunity to again ask them and then we have to ask them to leave the area as we enforce the law.”

Pictured below: A small group of homeless people were staying at Ala Moana Regional Park near the Kewalo Basin Harbor. A man named Puna said on April 9 that police cited them for being in a closed park and told them to leave. When Civil Beat visited again a week later, they were gone. 

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