200 rally against proposed homeless project
• Photo gallery: Chinatown residents gather to oppose planned housing project
By John Windrow
Advertiser Staff Writer
About 200 Chinatown residents gathered at the Sun Yat Sen Cultural Center on Kukui Street yesterday to show their opposition to a proposed city project for chronically homeless people.
The proposed 100-unit River Street Residences is based on a concept called "Housing First" that aims to get homeless people into housing and then deal with their other problems, such as alcohol, drugs, abuse or mental illness.
Opponents say they fear that locating the project in Chinatown will lead to a host of other problems, including increased crime and attracting more homeless people to the district.
Harry Palmer, a retired resident of nearby Honolulu Tower on Beretania Street, said the project should be "away from a residential area like this with schools, churches and cultural sites."
He also said he feared the homeless housing project "would keep River Street from becoming a more attractive place."
The city has said it will not proceed with the $10.6 million River Street project if the community opposes it.
Wesley Fong, president of the Concerned Citizens on River Street Housing, told the crowd yesterday that the project would be too near schools, churches, parks, businesses and residences.
"We are a densely populated area," he said. "This isn't in our backyard; it's in our living room."
State Rep. Karl Rhoads, D-28th (Pālama, Chinatown, Downtown), City Councilman Rod Tam, Downtown Neighborhood Board Chairman Frank Lavoie and Victor Lim, president of the Fort Street Business Improvement District, were also at the meeting. All said they opposed the proposed project. Rhoads described opposition from people who live in the immediate area as "overwhelming."
He added that Chinatown is already doing its part by being home to agencies such as the River of Life Mission, the Institute for Human Services in nearby Iwilei and other outreach, mental health and transitional living programs.
"Chinatown has not turned a cold shoulder to those in need," Rhoads said. "We're doing our share. We didn't create homelessness. It's someone else's turn."
People at the meeting said they felt the city is making a concerted effort to drive the homeless out of Waikīkī, Kapi'olani Park and Ala Moana Beach Park and into Chinatown.
"The people who are for this say we're saying 'not in my backyard,' but the people who are pushing this don't live here," said Lim. "They don't want it in their backyard either. The people who live here are against it."
Fong said his group wants the city, state and federal governments to develop an affordable senior housing project at the site of the proposed homeless project.
However, supporters of the homeless project say that getting people off the streets is the first step toward making things better in Chinatown, which has a highly visible, persistent homeless population.
They also say that Housing First projects on the Mainland have proven to be safe and effective and have drastically reduced homelessness in cities such as Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco and Chicago.
Marya Grambs, executive director of Mental Health America of Hawai'i, lives on the Windward side, but works on Fort Street Mall.
"I eat, work and shop in Chinatown every day," she said. "I am very familiar with the problems of Chinatown's homeless. We have to get them off the streets."
She said the River Street project would take "115 to 120 people who are now sleeping in Chinatown doorways and put them in a clean, safe place. You can't solve your problems when you're homeless."
Grambs and Darlene Hein, director of community services at the Waikīkī Health Center, said the Housing First method has reduced homelessness in the urban core of some Mainland cities by 40 percent or more.
They also said that when homeless people get a place to stay clean, do their laundry, get mail and be safe from predators on the street they are much more successful in dealing with their other problems.
"It's also much less expensive than shelters or having people live on the street," Hein said. "When people have a home they're not being jailed, or calling ambulances or using outreach programs. It's much less expensive to put them in cheap, safe housing."
She also said the project would greatly reduce costs to businesses and tourism from disruptive or mentally ill homeless people milling around their businesses.
Grambs and Hein said fears about the River Street project are based on misconceptions. They said that all residents would be screened, and the project will have 24-hour staffing, security and lighting.
It would not be a "magnet for more homeless," Hein said, "because we aren't going to offer any services to anyone who doesn't live there. There won't be any feedings or other services, so there would be no reason for other homeless people to go there."
Hein said that people need to realize that the homeless are going to be among them no matter what they do.
"This works — housing works," she said. "But it's a tough sell."