Hawaii Homeless Shelters Scrambling As Coronavirus Outbreak Expands

Mar 26, 2020

Hawaii’s stay-at-home order and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for social distancing are prompting groups serving the homeless to make adjustments as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the islands.

The Institute for Human Services is reconfiguring its beds to provide more space between people. It hasn’t caused a reduction in capacity, but IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell is concerned about the shelters’ occupancy rate.

“Every night people are coming in, and then every day, some people are leaving,” she said. “But we're going to get to that point where people are going to just feel like, 'Well, maybe I can just stay in place.' And we're not going to have the beds to receive a lot more people,” she said.

Right now, that’s not an issue for IHS shelters, but Mitchell has noticed fewer vacant beds in the morning.

Meanwhile, Family Promise, a housing service for families, had to close its facilities two weeks ago to reduce the risk to staff and families in a communal facility, Family Promise Executive Director Samantha Church explained.

The organization rapidly placed seven of its families into alternative housing. They were able to secure permanent housing for a few, one family moved to the Mainland and the rest went to other emergency shelters.

Since then, Family Promise has restructured its operation. It will be using a state facility, a rental property and a few locations in a church to shelter seven new families.

“We are just trying to get as creative as possible right now and finding individual units where we can temporarily shelter families,” Church said, “especially those families that are really high risk of having severe medical complications should they contract the virus.”

Family Promise also launched a rental assistance fund about two weeks ago. It’s a financial safety net for those on the verge of losing their homes.

Church said the cost is much lower to keep families housed rather than support them once they are homeless.

“This crisis is going to really, really hurt those households who are hardworking, but just don't have the economic stability to really make it through this crisis,” she said.

She noted that calls for help with rent increased by 400% over the last day. There was about $100,000 left in the fund. It’s supported by community donations.

Beyond personal protective equipment and general supply donations, both Mitchell and Church believe a partnership with vacant hotels or vacation rentals would go a long way.

“It really would be a great opportunity maybe for them to take some of our kupuna, some of the older folks, who are more at risk,” Mitchell said. “That would really make more space for us in the shelters.”

Partnering with the hotel industry has worked in other areas around the country as well.

Destination Home is a service nonprofit based in Santa Clara, CA. Chief Impact Officer Ray Branson said the county worked to secure hundreds of hotel and motel rooms to get vulnerable and sick people off the streets where they can isolate.

Branson warned places such as Hawaii, that have not yet seen widespread community cases, about the need to prepare.

“Do more than you think you should, as early as possible. So if you're thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn't get a few hundred hotel beds, that's more than we need right now,’ get those hotel beds,” he said.

“We continue to see the need, and the demand is greater than the resources available. So the earlier and the faster you can act, and the more aggressively you can move to get resources ... in a place, the better you'll be prepared when things start to get bad.”

Hawaii Health Director Bruce Anderson said the visitor industry is looking into using vacant hotels as possible sites for those who will need housing.