The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and another civil rights law firm are demanding Hawaii County immediately cease the sweeping of homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to county officials, lawyers said county police officers and workers forcibly evicted 15 houseless people and destroyed their personal property during an April 7 “sweep” – one day after the county told local advocates the people could be relocated to vacant space on the Hilo bayfront. The county provided only 45 minutes oral notice, they said.

The sweep occurred on a private lot adjacent to Agasa Furniture in downtown Hilo, according to the letter from the ACLU and the firm Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho. The homeless people have the landowners’ permission to stay there, the lawyers state.

Service providers say displacing people in need makes the job of helping them much harder. HOPE Services Hawaii CEO Brandee Menino said her organization was providing health care, education about COVID-19 and supplies.

“They were cooperative and were working with us to develop plans to move into shelter and permanent housing,” she said in a statement. “Mayor Kim’s response — to sweep without providing a safe place to relocate, shows his lack of empathy and concern for these individuals, and puts our entire community’s health and safety at risk of community spread.”

The law firms allege the county’s actions violate state law as well as the state and U.S. constitutions. A representative for Mayor Harry Kim did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The CDC advises against disrupting homeless encampments during the coronavirus pandemic unless there are individual housing units available for people. Honolulu briefly ceased the practice of sweeps, or what its mayor calls “compassionate disruption,” but resumed them after opening a new tent program run by the police department.

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