GBDH and the ACLU of Hawaiʻi demand a stop to homeless sweeps in Hawaiʻi County during COVID-19

April 30, 2020

On April 30, 2020, GBDH and co-counsel from the ACLU of Hawaiʻi sent a letter to officials for the County of Hawaiʻi (the Big Island) demanding that the County immediately cease sweeping homeless encampments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter describes an April 7, 2020 sweep of about fifteen unsheltered individuals residing on a private lot with the owners’ permission in Hilo. During the sweep, dozens of County police officers and workers forcibly removed the unsheltered residents and their personal property with the aid of a bulldozer. The County gave residents only forty-five minutes’ notice to gather their belongings and evacuate the lot.

In conducing the sweep, the County reversed course on a plan to help relocate the residents to vacant space on the Hilo bayfront.

GBDH and the ACLU of Hawai’i argue in the letter that the County’s actions violated the residents’ constitutional rights and run counter to the public health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which directs public entities not to conduct sweeps if individual housing units are not available as alternative shelter. The letter attaches a declaration from Dr. John Swartzberg, a clinical professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health, who opined that conducting encampment sweeps in the context of the current pandemic puts unsheltered individuals at greater risk of becoming sick from COVID-19 and spreading the virus to the wider community.

The letter and Dr. Swartzberg’s declaration are available here:

ACLU HI and GBDH Letter to Hawaii County

Declaration of Dr. John Swartzberg