The city has reversed its decision to close more than 300 park restrooms around the island during a lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak after various groups who advocate for the homeless urged city officials to keep them open in line with federal guidance.
The boarded-up restrooms will be opened today for public use during normal park hours, the city said.
But the parks will remain closed, and no other facilities will be open.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said the parks were closed to prevent people from going out as well as gathering, “but after hearing from people and looking at the situation from a hygiene point of view, we’re going to be opening the restrooms in our parks that have been locked.”
Caldwell added that bus, taxi, FedEx drivers and others need to use restrooms, and many restrooms, including those in restaurants, are now closed.
He said boards will be removed and gates will be unlocked. “They’ll be open for those who absolutely need to use the restroom, and then they need to leave the park because the parks are closed,” adding that included the homeless.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid out guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic that included keeping park restrooms open to allow the homeless to use them and not to cause them to disperse when they should be sheltering in place to protect themselves and the rest of the community.
However, on Monday the city’s homeless czar, Marc Alexander, stood firmly on his position that he and other city officials are carefully reviewing other options that include hygiene trailers and portable toilets and washrooms in some areas instead of opening the existing park restrooms.
He also urged the homeless to go to one of the city’s handful of shelters, although there is a lack of space for the 2,400 unsheltered homeless.
Alexander provided no timeline as to when hygiene stations would be made available and said the city was not going against the CDC’s guidelines because it was following its suspension on enforcement against encampments.
“Sadly, they’re using this pandemic to justify things they already wanted to do anyway,” said James Pakele of Puuhonua o Waianae.
“The city’s only answer to houselessness is to sweep them, sweep them again and make life so miserable that they go into the shelters,” when there isn’t enough room and shelters are temporary, only for 30 to 90 days at a time, he said.
Kukana Kama-Toth, a Waimanalo Neighborhood Board member, said that the board had sent a draft letter to Alexander on March 2 asking to end the sweeps, and said it appeared that Waimanalo was targeted because the bathrooms there were the first to close and Puuhonua o Waianae, which is also vocal, followed.
The news of the reversal came just before a news conference was to be held Tuesday by the group Hui Aloha. The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the Institute for Human Services, the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board and Puuhonua o Waianae are among the organizations urging the city to follow the CDC guidelines.
Breaking encampments could cause the homeless to spread throughout the community and break with their service providers, which “increases infectious disease spread,” the CDC said.
The CDC guidelines say restroom facilities should remain open 24 hours a day to the homeless with working water taps and kept stocked with hygiene materials, including toilet paper, soap and drying materials.
It further outlines that if no restroom facilities are available to homeless encampments of more than 10 people, then the city should provide portable latrines and hand-washing facilities.