Punahou alumni and a former faculty member have joined forces with Hui Aloha, an O‘ahu volunteer group rallying for governmental policy changes to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless.
Cathy Kawano-Ching, a former associate dean at Punahou, James Koshiba ’91, Darcie Scharfenstein ‘93 and Jackson Sayama ’15 are part of a larger group that was alarmed that public restrooms across the Island were closed on March 23. They say the decision to close the restrooms contradicted Centers for Disease Control guidelines to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, especially among the homeless.
After direct requests to government officials failed, Hui Aloha launched a petition, quickly garnering more than 1,000 signatures, along with media attention, to press Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell to reopen the facilities. Hui Aloha made the case that everyone, regardless of their housing status, needs access to sanitation facilities, and that open public bathrooms were critical to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Thanks to their quick work, most public bathrooms across O‘ahu reopened just a week later.
In return, the group received notes of gratitude, such as this one: “I wanted to let you know that the C&C maintenance workers unlocked one of the three restrooms [in the] park. I’m grateful for even just one restroom being accessible as I am currently houseless, living out of my vehicle along with my 11-year-old son… Thanks for all that you have done and are continuing to do for this issue!”
Hui Aloha plans to continue ensuring that bathrooms remain open, showers are turned back on, and that people are not cited by local police for entering parks. The group also plans to launch a “Bathroom Brigades” pilot program to keep bathrooms in high-use areas clean, safe and operating. As part of this, they recruited “Brigade Captains,” houseless individuals who live near public bathrooms and are willing to monitor and disinfect them daily. Hui Aloha volunteers, community donors and service organizations will keep them stocked with supplies and protective gear.
Hui Aloha learned this strategy from the houseless community, Pu’uhonua O Wai‘anae, led by Twinkle Borge. Under Borge’s leadership, houseless residents take responsibility for addressing community needs, such as feeding other houseless, cleaning sidewalks and parks, and now working with maintenance staff to keep bathrooms clean and open.
“The houseless community needs to be part of taking kuleana too,” Borge said. “We need to be part of doing something to help the whole community. This brings out the best in us, both houseless and housed. We have to learn how to build relationships, and show we care by contributing together.”
Hui Aloha has previously partnered with Punahou in outreach initiatives between students and houseless communities through the Luke Center for Public Services. The group was thrilled to receive donations of masks from several members of the Punahou community, including the Hu family and the Punahou design labs team.
“COVID-19 will tempt all of us to act out of fear at times, but the outbreak will also present opportunities to act with aloha instead,” Koshiba said. “If we stand together – six-feet apart for now – and nudge each other toward caring and generosity, we can seize this opportunity to build the community of aloha we’ve been longing for.”
For more information or to donate supplies and materials (e.g., cleaning supplies, face masks), you can contact Kawano-Ching or Koshiba via the Hui Aloha website: www.huialoha.org.