Just over a year ago, the homeless shelter for men on Sumner Street suffered a major Covid-19 outbreak that left over 60 people infected and a staff member dead.

About two weeks ago, the Sumner Men’s Shelter had to close its doors again after 38 people tested positive for the coronavirus as the delta variant has sparked a new surge in cases statewide, dashing hopes that the pandemic was nearing an end after months of relatively low numbers.

The temporary closure leaves even fewer beds available in Oahu’s crowded shelters at a critical time. Advocates say they’re struggling to accommodate high demand for space after reducing capacity and implementing Covid-19 testing and vaccine mandates.  And they’re doing it without the federal Covid-19 relief funds that provided a safety net last year. 

“We’ve had to temporarily halt intakes until further notice,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs the Sumner shelter and nine others. “Our intention is to thin out the shelter and to provide the safest possible environment for our guests.”

“We learned a lot last year as a system and the homeless system is working collaboratively,” she added. “We’re doing our best, but we don’t have the same resources like we did last year with the CARES funding. We have to keep evolving and keep responding to the changes that the government comes up with.” 

The Institute for Human Services recently stopped accepting new arrivals at its men’s homeless shelter in Iwilei due to a Covid-19 outbreak. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Mitchell said IHS is focused on transitioning the Covid patients out of isolation and hoping to reopen one of the men’s shelter for new admissions soon. There were 26 shelter guests and 12 staff members infected with the coronavirus in the latest outbreak. Correction: an earlier version of this story said there were more than 70 people who tested positive for Covid-19 instead of 38 people.

IHS has 10 shelters with a capacity of about 400 people per night. While the men’s shelter is currently not taking any new admissions, other IHS shelters continue to admit, Mitchell said.

Those who are turned away are redirected to the state-funded Homeless Outreach and Navigation for Unsheltered Persons program, which provides temporary housing in tents at two sites, Keehi Lagoon Beach Park and Whitmore Village in Wahiawa. HONU currently has 29 vacant spots, according to Anton Krucky, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing and Homelessness.

Large tents set up at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park.
HONU program set up at Keehi Lagoon Beach Park. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In dire need of funding, IHS asked for help in an August newsletter.

“We are preparing for this resurgence of COVID-19 infections across all of our facilities – taking steps to protect guests and staff, masking, distancing, screening, and offering vaccinations and testing weekly in our shelters,” it said.

RYSE, a youth shelter for ages 14 to 24 in Kailua, also filled its 20-bed space and has a waitlist of about 16 people, according to its executive director, Carla Houser. 

“We’ve had to make some difficult decisions as far as who we would be able to serve,” Houser said. “We have a lot of young people who are immunocompromised, young people with HIV and respiratory issues. So protecting them has been of the utmost importance for our organization.”

“When we’re full, we’re full,” she added.

The state Department of Health doesn’t maintain data on whether Covid patients are housed so there’s no comprehensive data about how many homeless people have contracted Covid-19 or been vaccinated since the pandemic began early last year.

Vaccines And Covid Tests

But groups have stepped up outreach efforts as the state presses to vaccinate as many people as possible since that is a key strategy in slowing the spread of the virus. Project Vision Hawaii, which provides Covid-19 testing and other services to the homeless community, says it has administered more than 50,000 Covid vaccines to individuals across the islands since this summer.

The DOH has been working with organizations like Project Vision and the University of Hawaii’s HOME Project to ensure homeless people who don’t have government-issued IDs can get vaccinated and tested.

IHS recently mandated vaccination for its staff and encourages homeless people who come to its shelters to get a shot. Any who are not vaccinated must produce a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of entering “or submit to a test right away,” Mitchell said.

“Once in shelter, we strongly encourage people to get vaccinated and offer weekly on-site vaccine clinics to help move that effort along. I’m proud to say that, for the moment, 100% of guests are now vaccinated,” she added.

Houser said 97% of RYSE’s staff and 16 of the 20 current occupants were vaccinated. “Young people who are not vaccinated test weekly for us,” she said.

RYSE Youth Homeless Shelter, nestled near Olomana and the Koolau mountains at the former Youth corrections facility.
RYSE, a youth homeless shelter in Kailua, is at full capacity. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Lack Of Data

There’s no data available of how many homeless people have been vaccinated or contracted Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

Leinaala Kanana, the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center’s director of community health services, estimated that “less than half our homeless population is vaccinated” but said there’s been an increase in requests from people in shelters to get the shots.

The single-day Point in Time Count, in which outreach workers track unsheltered individuals in the state, found that 1,185 people were in emergency shelters, 640 in transitional housing and 28 in a safe haven on Jan. 25, although the usual count of people living on the street was canceled because of the pandemic.

Homeless advocates also have worried about an increase of homelessness after the Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s most recent Covid-related ban on evictions.

Laura Thielen, executive director for Partners in Care, which coordinates with homeless services on the island, noted that homeless shelters may be filling up because of reduced capacity and fear of being infected with Covid-19 on the streets. Another challenge is the inability to provide isolation rooms for homeless people who get the virus. That problem has been exacerbated by the revival of the tourist industry, which essentially shut down last year, leaving empty hotel rooms to be used for quarantine. Those are no longer so readily available.

Laura Thielen.
Laura Thielen, executive director for Partners in Care, says shelters may be filling up because of reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions and fear of being infected on the streets. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

This week, Department of Health officials said that isolation and quarantine units increased statewide with priority going to those in congregate living spaces such as shelters and treatment and care facilities.

Oahu, which had 64 units, increased to 199, according to DOH Spokesman Brooks Baehr. And of the 199 units, 103 are vacant.

“The delta variant came, and it changed the whole game,” he said, noting that unit capacity continuously changes.

However, Thielen said homeless people are still having problems getting access to those units due to long waits on the state’s 24/7 behavioral crisis line, known as the CARES line, or the lack of a phone.

“That’s been really difficult for our providers. Many people are unwilling to wait and get that call back if it comes, and from what we understand there’s very limited space, if any,” she said.

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