How COVID-19 has rallied the forgotten homeless
We were talking about social housing when it started to rain. Raindrops hit the sun-baked blue tarp that half covered our heads and quickly evaporated from the warm ground. As the spray turned into a shower, I looked up and tilted my head for cover.
“Come on,” Aunt Penny waved at me with her hand, inviting me to shield myself from the rain, deeper into the house she shares with her ‘ohana.
“Aunt Penny” Victorino’s house is the first you will see on Amala Place, the road to Kanaha Beach Park which is lined with cars and makeshift homes for the approximately 75 homeless population. Not a “home” by society’s standards, Penny’s home is a small camp by the side of the road, wedged between the shoulder and brush, and smelling of chemicals and sewage from the sewage treatment plant. adjacent. There is no plumbing, electricity, walls or doors. There are two cars, a kiawe that gives dappled shade, wooden pallets used for purposes ranging from counters to raw material, and two 5 × 5 tarps mounted to make a roof. An old carpet and a piece of plywood cover the dusty floor and on them, for the furniture, the family sits on old beach chairs, a bench made of a plank resting on cinder blocks, a wheelchair and two bedrooms. stacked inflatable air.
But still, this is home. This is where Penny, 56, and her family of five cook, eat, rest and share the camaraderie. Where her husband, a double amputee, makes jokes from the passenger seat of the car as she oscillates between household chores. Their hospitality makes it clear that this is their space, modest but maintained and shared with pride. At one point during my visit, I was offered a bottle of water.
“It’s hot to be sitting in my truck,” said Penny’s friend Doreen apologetically, “but it’s not open. ”
Thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decline the offer with some guilt, as if I had just refused a gift.
It’s the same sense of caution mixed with humility that I feel when Aunt Penny invites me into shelter from the rain. The humility of being welcomed to share with someone who has little; Caution because in such a small space with inherent sanitation problems, I don’t want to be a vector of disease spread to my family or theirs, or to our common island community.
The health and hygiene conditions of ‘Kanaha’ Ohana ‘, as Aunt Penny refers to the community that lines the half-mile strip of Aloha Recycling at the closed gate of Kanaha Beach Park, have taken on new significance. emergency since COVID-19 became a public health emergency. These conditions and homelessness in Hawai’i have been a “persistent and vexing problem,” as the 2019 Hawai’i Housing and Planning Study puts it, resulting from a “continuing lack of affordable housing.” This has been a problem that is easily – or conveniently – ignored and forgotten.
Hawaii’s unlivable minimum wage and soaring house prices that have exceeded increases in median household income, its voracious appetite for visitors, which came in record numbers last year, and the marketed image of a paradise for Pacific tourists have all contributed to the reality that last year Maui County was home to approximately 862 homeless people every night. This is only 11 fewer than the previous year, and that’s not counting the 24% of households considered “at risk of becoming homeless” and an additional 22% who are considered to be “homeless”. hidden shelters ”- individuals who have doubled into full households.
But now, as a pandemic ravages communities around the world and threatens the capacity of our own health system, the needs of that community have been magnified. As the health of Kanaha ‘Ohana is recognized as interconnected with the rest of the island and therefore a risk of the spread of COVID-19, new concerns regarding the hygiene of the homeless have arisen.
A homeless sweep at Beach Park in February illustrates the county’s scope and consideration for the homeless (or lack thereof) before coronavirus measures hit their current peak. On February 18, the county announced that the Department of Parks and Recreation would close Kanaha Beach Park for three days for “maintenance and repairs, large debris removal, and deep cleaning of toilets, grates. and showers ”. The next morning, after ignoring a request for MauiTime Asking whether the homeless would be removed or relocated during the shutdown, county spokesperson Brian Perry issued a press release. He added that the “illegal settlements” would be addressed as part of the closure in partnership with the police, in accordance with a county “compassionate action plan”.
Details of this plan were not disclosed. Requests to the county for a copy went unanswered. “There is no MPD policy dealing directly with the homeless / homeless that you are asking for,” replied Lt. Audra Sellers, Maui Police Department information officer. A month after the sweep – and only after filing a request under the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) – county homelessness coordinator David Nakama finally provided a compassionate action plan of a page outlining the steps, agencies and objectives involved in eliminating homeless settlements. The specific additional information requested on the types of services offered, the goods seized, the vehicles towed or the population abducted during the February sweep was never provided.
Such sweeps are now misguided. “Don’t clear campsites during community spread of COVID-19,” the Centers for Disease Control warns. “Cleaning up settlements can cause people to disperse in the community and sever ties with service providers. This increases the potential for the spread of infectious diseases. “
The closure of county parks on March 20 and beach parks on March 25 as part of social distancing measures was another policy at odds with best health practices for homeless areas. With the closure of public toilets and showers, many homeless people found themselves without a place to wash their hands, shower or practice basic hygiene, another concern of the CDC, which advises “If there are toilets or facilities. hand washing facilities are not available nearby, provide access to portable latrines with hand washing facilities for camps with more than 10 people.
Lisa Darcy stands in front of a roadside fire hydrant, showing off the county’s latest shower solution: a hose and PVC hose from the fire hydrant attached to a fence, and a box containing a bar common Irish Spring soap. Darcy is the founder of Share Your Mana, an organization meant to “create a dignified and compassionate process for those who have become marginalized from their communities to join.” “
Darcy tells me that since the parks closed, she has started visiting Kanaha ‘Ohana daily to do wellness checks, deliver food, and talk to the community about her needs. The shower, hand washing stations and portable toilets outside the closed park gates were installed a week after the park closed, she explains, leaving the community without running water for days.
“It’s a crisis. There are children here. There are kupuna here, ”says Darcy.
Watching Darcy, a petite 53-year-old woman, confidently stroll down the street to the other, it’s obvious that she has the trust and respect of the community. Within minutes, her 50 sandwiches are accepted by people who greet her by name along the way, thank her for the food, and update her on their situation.
This is a level of confidence that will be needed for the county if it hopes to be successful in helping this community and reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection.
When we come to the end of the road at the closed entrance to the park, I ask Alika Pua Maalea, a 26 year old Kanaka who has lived in Kanaha for three years, if he thinks the county has helped him during the pandemic. .
“Not really,” he replies. Much awareness has stopped since the pandemic, he says, making things even more difficult. After long days of construction or landscaping work, he was returning home to Kanaha, desperate to take a shower but unable to find running water.
He thanked “Aunt Lisa” for the recent changes.
“She started helping us, pushing the county to get cellphones here and so on,” he says. “We’re really grateful for her because without her they wouldn’t have had this conversation.”
As COVID-19 has caused significant disruption, he, like Darcy and Aunt Penny, is hoping the conversation signals the possibility of more talks like this, so he can one day find that kind of home that would allow him to. reunite with her children in a Safe Place.
“Someone has to say something,” observes Pua Maalea. “Otherwise, we are speechless.
Back under the tarp at Hale Aloha Kekahi i Kekahi (“love each other,” as Aunt Penny’s’ ohana proudly named their camp), her sentiment is echoed and supported by a growing effort to organize the community. so that she can defend herself. Resting a leg with an infected wound on a stool as the rain falls, Penny takes notes during the meeting with Darcy. She shows her hand-drawn map and the census of the different families living in Kanaha, plans a future community meeting of the whole of Kanaha ‘Ohana and shares her hopes for the future (a place where she can have a garden and live. land, she said, which she would share with the younger ones stuck in the cycle of homelessness).
Like others in Kanaha, she is wary of both the county and the limited choices of the endless bureaucratic tangle, but grateful for the help it has provided so far. Having recently failed the last round of the Section 8 Rent Assistance Lottery, she is hoping that new housing programs will soon be available for families like hers, such as container homes, mini-homes and homes. community centers.
“That was enough already,” she said wearily but with determination. After years of roaming, it seems recent events have given him new resolve.
“If we are ready to work together, we will have more chances,” she said. “We have no power here. We are trying to get it back.