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Bathroom Brigades Keep the Community Safe During Pandemic

On March 23, the City & County of Honolulu and the State closed park restrooms, cutting off our houseless neighbors from their only source of water for drinking, washing and sanitation and their only access to bathrooms. The City also announced it would continue “sweeps” of homeless encampments during the outbreak, directly contradicting guidance on homelessness from the Centers for

Disease Control and Prevention:

"Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread…Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.” (source: interim guidance issued by CDC, May 13, 2020;

Hui Aloha quickly mobilized to stop the sweeps of people, tents, and belongings, and get bathrooms opened. It was urgent for houseless individuals and public health. We launched a petition that quickly garnered more than 1,000 signatures. Under pressure, the City halted sweeps, but kept bathrooms closed citing lack of adequate staffing to keep bathrooms sanitary during COVID.

In response, we recruited "Bathroom Brigades" of houseless volunteers to keep the bathrooms in their area clean, sanitized, stocked with hygiene and cleaning supplies, and operating.  The City then agreed to re-open most bathrooms.

Houseless Brigades stepped up in a big way, cleaning bathrooms daily at Ala Moana, Kewalo Basin, ‘A‘ala Park, Crane Park, Waimānalo Beach Park, Wai‘anae District Park, and the Wai‘anae Boat Harbor. ALEA Bridge replicated our work, launching Brigades in Waialua and Haleʻiwa. This was a powerful example of how community members can take kuleana to meet public health and community needs, even in times of crisis. Twinkle Borge set an example for this work, and has already made regular visits to homeless communities throughout the island to distribute hygiene supplies (then in very short supply in local stores).

Many supporters got behind our work. Grants from the Hawai‘i People's Fund, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation, the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, and Papa Ola Lōkahi, along with donated supplies and funds from individuals and partners like ALEA Bridge enabled us to provide every Brigade with a kit of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks and gloves, cleaning supplies, hand soap, phones, and gift cards. HA members visit Brigade teams every week to restock, and Brigades are winning praise from housed neighbors and from State and City cleaning staff.

Unfortunately, the City resumed sweeps of houseless people, homes, and belongings in April, which also disrupted the Bathroom Brigades’ work. Brigade members who were staying or spending time in Ala Moana and Kewalo parks were given citations or threatened with arrest and forced to leave these public areas. As a result, we can’t locate those Brigade members. People at Crane Park were also swept repeatedly. During sweeps many had all their belongings confiscated (including Brigade supplies). Several people were sent to jail for outstanding park/sidewalk citations at a time when jails were de-crowding to prevent COVID spread.

Houseless community members were also pushed toward temporary shelters, however, several told us that shelters also could not accept them due to new COVID-related de-crowding efforts.

Despite this frustrating turn, the Bathroom Brigades in other areas have continued to perform admirably. We hope to share their stories widely to show their good work, to fight stereotypes of "the homeless" as lazy vandals, and to build public empathy. We also hope that City officials will change course and join our effort to build a beloved community of aloha.

See more of our Summer 2020 Newsletter at:

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