A key part of Honolulu’s homeless strategy lies in a scrubby field off Lagoon Drive at Ke’ehi Lagoon Park. That’s where the Honolulu Police Department has set up a COVID-19 isolation center where, currently, up to 100 homeless clients can maintain social distancing while they decide what their next steps might be. The city considers the project highly successful in getting people off the street.
Past a locked gate, behind orange plastic barriers, is a field dotted by several dozen light grey tents with blue rain flys flapping in the wind. This is the Honolulu Police Department's Provisional Outdoor Screening and Triage facility, or POST. It offers isolation, social distancing, and shelter 24/7, transportation provided. Major Mike Lambert heads HPD Community Policing.
"The biggest misconception is that the homeless don't want shelter, that's not necessarily true,"
says Lambert, a single dad with two boys. He's spent 17 years with HPD.
"Predominantly, I've spent my career on the enforcement side, patrol or in a narcotics/ vice division, that's where I've spent the majority of my career. But over the last two years, just through a lot of twists and turns and luck and a lot of ways, I ended up in charge of a program that connects outreach officers with officers to assure we're giving people the best opportunity to get off the street."
Linking enforcement with social services began in Chinatown.
"In the beginning there was this, 'What is HPD trying to do?'" says Lambert. People wondered, "What's the catch?"
But service providers got on board, Chief Susan Ballard expanded the project islandwide, and last year Lambert started a project called HONU, Homeless Outreach Navigation for Unsheltered, that combined enforcement and service offerings iin specific areas.
In its first two outings, HONU provided temporary tents, toilets, showers, sanitation, and service providers from a base in Waipahu and at Old Stadium Park. HONU evolved into the POST once the pandemic hit. Up to 100 people can be sheltered here, in individual tents. Accommodations could be expanded, however, and other sites around the island are being considered.
Primary attractions of the POST facility include that it can accept clients 24/7 with transportation provided. Crucial for many, up to two animals are allowed per person, and some belongings are also allowed. Clients can stay a maximum of 10 days.
"We have more options now," says Laura Thielen, executive director of Partners in Care, Oahu's homeless services coordinator.
"Due to this current crisis, we've also seen a lot of people that might be more willing to go into shelter."
"One of the things I realize from visiting the different encampments is there's a lot of fear out there."
Marc Alexander, the city's executive director of housing points out, homeless people do not always have sanitation and food.
"But there's also fear because they know many of the people in the public do not have a good view of our homeless clientele, especially the unsheltered. They were fearful that people would shun them even more, that people would not offer even the services that were being offered them normally."
When the COVID shutdown began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that homeless encampments should not be disrupted unless there are "individual housing units" available for shelter.
The CDC is also concerned about loss of service contacts and possible spread of infection when unsheltered groups are dispersed.
Once the POST opened, City officials reinstituted enforcements and arrests in response to complaints about homeless.
"People are still given the option of going right away to POST, it's a little harder to get into the shelters right away, so usually it's POST. And some of them will take it. Not many do, to be frank, but it's always there."
The POST has moved over 150 people into further services. They're hosting 41 people now under code yellow conditions. That means clients may leave for up to 4 hours a day, during daylight hours.