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Editorial: Homeless uniquely vulnerable to virus

These are people who are among the most vulnerable of all to the coronavirus that is striking a gradually, steadily increasing number of patients every day, bringing serious illness or death to a sobering number of victims around the world.

They are homeless, so the directive to “shelter in place” is received with particular poignancy. Most of these people, say social service workers on the front lines of the homelessness crisis, are acutely aware of the danger to themselves and others, many trying to achieve the same “social distancing” recommended to the general population.

The needs of the homeless in this pandemic are the same as anyone’s — a place to stay clear of infection, access to sanitation, food security — but just so much harder to fulfill.

“They’re very fearful, too,” said Andy Mounthongdy, who heads the nonprofit Homeless H4 (Hygiene, Healthcare, Housing, Humanitarian) Project, which provides basic clinical care in the community.

And their concerns should be everyone’s concerns. Some of the homeless are in the workforce and in any case move throughout the community, as anyone else would. They should not be seen as occupying some forgotten realm of society.

Further, they already have compromised health, so would more likely suffer from critical illness. And many are in their 60s or older, with a weakened immune system.

The social service network that has shouldered Hawaii’s homelessness problems is working to adapt as best they can. They could use the community’s understanding and assistance.

Connie Mitchell, executive director of The Institute for Human Services, acknowledged that the shelter could still use volunteer help with its meal service.

There are other ways to offer kokua to the homeless: Donated toiletries assembled into personal kits seem especially appropriate now. There is general information on how to “Get Involved” through that link on the website, ihshawaii.org.

For its part, IHS is reorganizing its space to maintain its service capacity in spaces that are less cramped. Meal service hours are extended, to deter the long wait lines, and all but the shelter guests are served their meals as take-out, Mitchell said.

A welcome announcement came this week: The city is providing the space for 26 housing units on 909 Kaamahu Place that can be used to separate those in the homeless community who do test positive for the virus.

The city spent $9 million to purchase the former halfway-house dormitory for released prison inmates. It was meant as a replacement site for the Sand Island drug treatment facility, displaced by the expansion of the sewage treatment plant, Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Tuesday, but this need was more urgent.

It falls now to the state to staff health services at the shelter; an operational plan is needed there urgently.

There is also the HONU pop-up tent shelter for the homeless at Old Stadium Park. City spokesman Alexander Zannes said the homeless clients of that shelter already are given basic health screenings there, now with an eye out for those with flu-like symptoms.

Agencies are tapping what provider resources there are, so that fewer homeless will simply report to Oahu’s overburdened emergency rooms. Offering a needed assist in coordinating this is Partners in Care, keeping service providers updated on the rapidly evolving pandemic landscape.

“We are still trying to get people housed during this time, and that will help people take care of their health better than out on the streets,” said PIC Executive Director Laura E. Thielen.

It’s well past time to appreciate the importance of that basic mission — and just how much higher COVID-19 has raised the hurdles.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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