Meeting the needs of those who have less is core to our social traditions. The Gospel of Matthew reminds Christians of the imperatives of mercy and dignity for those with the least. The first law of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Kanawai Mamalahoe, obliged all to protect the safety of those forced to lay by the roadside.
As an outbreak of the 100 nanometer coronavirus ripped through a single San Francisco homeless shelter and came to represent over 10% of that entire city’s COVID-19 cases, the first global pandemic of the 21st-century demands that we focus our attention immediately on compassionate care for the least among us.
Hawaii has maintained one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the U.S. for over a decade, and now ranks highest in unemployment due to COVID-19.
We have a unique opportunity to transmute the challenges and strengths of our state into a safe, just outcome for all our people and a model of how to beat a pandemic.
We must start by housing every single homeless person or household in Hawaii in a vacant hotel or private room — not after they present with COVID-19 symptoms but right now.
Creating a straightforward system to protect those who do not have the means to practice appropriate distancing is preferable to the current approach.
Honolulu’s most visible intervention to assist homeless people in physical distancing is the POST (Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage) program at Keehi Lagoon. Using Ohana Zone funding, the Honolulu Police Department has created a homeless quarantine camp. Surveilled by HPD, people are offered tents to stay in but must share bathroom facilities.
Once a person enters, they must quarantine for 15 days; to leave the site and come back means that the person will have to restart the quarantine clock. A “yellow zone” of the camp does permit “ins and outs,” and is recommended for “employed homeless persons.”
Can we do no better for these essential workers at risk of exposure than a work camp run by the police?
Echoes Of Internment Camps
We should be disturbed by these echoes of internment under the shadow of the war memorial obelisk. As Mayor Caldwell vows to reinstate homeless sweeps — effectively abandoning CDC guidelines — he is coercing homeless people to be rounded up and sent to a tent city where they potentially encounter more people using shared bathrooms.
Adequate protection, as well as basic human dignity, requires private rooms with private bathrooms. As supported in “Crush the Curve: Urgent Steps Hawaii Can Take to Contain the COVID-19 Pandemic,” a recently released report from the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Public Policy Center, hotels would offer an acceptable option for homeless people.
How could we fund this idea?
The state of Hawaii has been allotted funding through the federal CARES Act that must be used for new programs offering homeless services in the fight against COVID-19. We could use this money to launch a Hotels for Homeless program. Like the Hotels for Heroes program, we would pay $85 per night to allow houseless people to practice appropriate hygiene and social distancing before potential exposure to the coronavirus.
With San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and New York City all unrolling similar programs, we can benefit by learning from these examples and staying ahead of the curve. All these cities have experienced rapid spread among homeless populations in congregate settings and are now taking the epidemiologically necessary step of providing appropriate private space for each household using hotels.
The mainland has already seen dozens of homeless deaths from COVID-19 and an explosion of hundreds of cases. We can prevent these morbid waves reaching our shores.
To make roll out of such a program feasible, existing mechanisms like the Coordinated Entry System can prioritize those with greatest vulnerability: people living in congregate shelters or encampments, those over 60, those with immune deficiencies, and those with respiratory or cardiac comorbidities.
In this setting, trained service providers and telemedicine can be deployed more easily to meet the complex medical and behavioral needs of participants. And, the implementation of these services potentially generates additional sources of financial support to sustain such a program through the pandemic, as diversified care generates diversified funding.
Everyone deserves the chance to prevent a pandemic.
In caring for our homeless ohana, Kona has taken the lead with HOPE Services partnering with Holiday Inn Express to house homeless kupuna.
Let’s immediately stop the wasteful and potentially deadly practice of homeless sweeps inaccurately referred to as “compassionate disruption.” There is enough disruption during this pandemic. Now is the time for compassionate care.
Not only would this benefit the health and safety of people experiencing homelessness, it would also be a win for hotels and their staff, homeless shelters, and the state of Hawaii.
Hotels for Homeless would re-open hotels, allow veteran hotel staff to go back to work, and provide funds for shelter caseworkers to check in with homeless individuals, making sure that they have adequate care and wrap-around services. In order to ensure everyone’s safety, sufficient personal protective equipment and regular virus testing would accompany this temporary housing initiative.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear our need for housing, especially in emergencies. The process of implementing and permitting a Hotels for Homeless program can provide a blueprint for use of emergency accommodations as we navigate the future of Hawaii.
Let’s make the state of Hawaii a national leader in offering safety to those with the least among us, and thus, safety for us all. Everyone deserves the chance to prevent a pandemic, and if we do not support the most vulnerable and exposed, everyone in Hawaii will suffer for months and years to come.
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