Sheltering the homeless: Hawaii County, HOPE Services secure hotel rooms amid stay-at-home order

  • Qualifying homeless individuals are beginning to be housed at the Holiday Inn Express in Kona. County officials say the partnership will minimize risk and exposure to COVID-19 and address issues with increased presence of homeless on Pawai Place in the Old Kona Industrial Area. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Qualifying homeless individuals are beginning to be housed at the Holiday Inn Express in Kona. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Menino

  • Hirota

The Holiday Inn Express in Kailua-Kona has been repurposed into a homeless shelter amid Gov. David Ige’s stay-at-home order.

HOPE Services Hawaii, which is administering the program, began moving homeless into 40 of the hotel’s 75 rooms on Thursday to give dozens of unsheltered Hawaii Island residents private rooms to shelter in place during the pandemic, according to a press release from Hope Services.

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“CDC guidelines recommend that we all shelter in place, but not everyone has that luxury,” HOPE Services Hawaii CEO Brandee Menino said in the release issued after West Hawaii Today posed questions about the partnership Friday. “We all have a role to play — from nonprofits, to businesses, to the county. It’s our responsibility as citizens to follow guidance from the infectious disease experts to make sure we protect the most vulnerable members of our ohana.”

Sharon Hirota, Mayor Harry Kim’s executive assistant assigned to homelessness, said the agreement with HOPE Services Hawaii and the hotel is one of the ways Hawaii County is working to increase the number of shelter beds on the island. The county is also working to increase capacity at Keolahou in Hilo and setting up temporary shelter units at a not-yet-determined location.

The housing is being funded by a $25,000 operating grant to support access to health and comprehensive services for residents on Hawaii Island from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, according to Kristen Alice, director of community relations for HOPE Services Hawaii.

Ten people had already been moved into seven rooms as of Friday afternoon, according to Alice.

“The hotel guests were referred by HOPE Services, with priority given to those who are at high risk of suffering serious complications from COVID-19, including kupuna and immunocompromised individuals,” the release states.

The release stated the staff is partnering alongside Holiday Inn staff 24/7 and visitors will not be allowed. Hotel personnel are providing in-room housekeeping services every three days, as well as disinfecting common areas, and preparing daily to-go breakfasts.

Alice added any illegal activity, including drug use, will not be permitted on the property.

Rotary Club of Kona, Rotary Club of Kona Sunrise, and Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii Island will also provide daily lunch and hot dinners. West Hawaii Community Health Center will also offer services, including COVID-19 testing, as needed.

Kailua Village Business Improvement District Executive Director Debbie Baker said the organization was notified on Friday about the county’s plan to house homeless individuals at high risk for COVID-19 at the Holiday Inn Express in the middle of town.

She said the improvement district did not participate in developing the county plan, and to their knowledge no public input was sought.

“While we understand the need to care for those at risk including the homeless, we are very concerned about the short and long term impacts of housing up to 40 high risk COVID-19 individuals on Sarona Road,” she said.

Baker added while the county plan does call for security, the experience at the shelters on Pawai Place have not demonstrated the ability to deliver a safe environment for surrounding property owners and the larger community.

Hirota said HOPE Services had to make changes to their operations to minimize risk and exposure to their program participants at the West Hawaii Emergency Program and Hale Kikaha on Pawai Place.

“This change in operations and the closing of the parks have increased their presence in the Pawai area,” said Hirota. “We are hoping that some of the identified high-risk individuals in this encampment will be open to a hotel room in the next few days.”

The partnership follows the county’s removal of a homeless encampment behind a Hilo furniture store on Tuesday, which HOPE Services Hawaii said contradicted recommendations by the organization and federal guidelines to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“My team is working around the clock to keep everyone safe, not just people experiencing homelessness, but our entire community. When they stay healthy, we all stay healthy,” Menino said in the release.

Alice in response to a question of whether those displaced this week will be brought to the Holiday Inn Express said “so far we have focused outreach efforts only in West Hawaii, but outreach efforts in East, North and South could be explored if rooms are still available and if there are other houseless kupuna who would relocate to Kailua-Kona.”

The sheltering of homeless individuals at Holiday Inn Express will continue through at least April 30, or throughout the duration of stay-at-home orders.

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“Throughout the duration of their stay, we will continue to work with all residents on getting them document ready and on a pathway to housing. If there are not enough affordable housing options by the end of April, we will continue to offer shelter at any of our other facilities in Kailua-Kona, Hilo and Pahoa,” Alice said.

Anyone experiencing homelessness should register with HOPE Services by calling 935-3050 or emailing info@hopeserviceshawaii.org. For more information, to donate or volunteer, visit www.hopeserviceshawaii.org.