According to Hawaii public health officials, houseless people being relocated to a shelter, where people are in close quarters to each other, increases someone’s risk for contracting COVID-19 compared to being allowed to stay in their own tents or other forms of shelter. Instead, public health experts recommend houseless people remain in place and resources be brought to them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii (ACLU of Hawaii), Lieutenant Governor Josh Green, and public health experts from the Hawaii Health and Harm Reduction Center (HHHRC) are warning that the City’s continued “sweeps” of the houseless population during the current COVID-19 pandemic put public safety at greater risk.
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Lieutenant Governor Josh Green said: “Sweeping our houseless community is short-sighted, not based in science and cruel. It is all of those things on a normal day, but especially dangerous in the middle of an infectious disease pandemic. By sweeping these people, the City is unnecessarily exposing its first responders to COVID-19 and forcing one unsheltered community to potentially spread the virus to additional populations. If we really want to prevent unsanitary conditions and the spread of COVID-19, we need to activate all the resources available to us, like mobile medical services, social work and using tiny homes and medical respite beds to isolate confirmed positive individuals, to support this community, not literally move the crisis down the road.”
The Hawaii Department of Health also strongly recommends that enforcements only occur for purposes of sanitation and safety — not for removal — and that they should minimize the disbursement of people who are unsheltered.
Heather Lusk, Executive Director of HHHRC, said: “We know that risk of infection increases correspondingly with an increase in stress levels, and forcing someone who is unsheltered to move at threat of arrest is a significant stressor and places our public safety personnel at unnecessary risk. The CDC indicates that our kūpuna and those with compromised immune systems and other health issues are at higher risk for infection. Our houseless community is also one of the most vulnerable. We appreciate that the State is limiting enforcements at this time and call on the City to do the same. It is also unhelpful that public bathrooms are being closed: it is both cruel to the people living there and will jeopardize sanitation, further increasing the risk of community spread.”
Dr. Christina Wang, nurse practitioner and epidemiologist at HHHRC added with regards to the bathroom closures at parks: “This gravely concerns me. We have been able to provide bars of soap to people who are unsheltered, but without water, our most vulnerable clients will be unable to practice even the most basic of hand hygiene. This further endagers our clients and risks spreading this virus throughout the greater community.”
During a press conference on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell stated that the City will continue to conduct sweeps of houseless encampments throughout Honolulu. On Wednesday, March 18, 2020, Caldwell announced the closure of public parks until April 1, 2020. Meanwhile, state officials in Hawaii report being told by government officials in Seattle that one of the ways COVID 19 was spread was through unsheltered people being moved from their normal spaces.
Joshua Wisch, ACLU of Hawaii Executive Director, said: “We are disappointed the City is moving forward with its plans to continue sweeps against the clear advice of public health experts. Time is not on our side with this virus, but there is still time for the City to do the right thing and protect our community — housed and unhoused — by halting the sweeps. In addition to our continuing concerns about the unconstitutional nature of the sweeps, they now pose a clear danger to the safety of Hawaii residents — especially those who are the most vulnerable. Sweeps can also lead to the arrest and jailing of those with outstanding warrants for even low-level offenses, increasing risks to them, to inmates and staff at OCCC, and to staff’s families when they return home each day.”
The ACLU of Hawaii reached out to the City on March 17 and 18 regarding these concerns and has not received a response as of the sending of this press release.
The sweeps are announced on the City’s website at least one day in advance, as part of the 2015 Martin v. City and County of Honolulu settlement. They are also listed on the ACLU of Hawaii’s social media streams (#aclusweeptweet).