Chinatown grapples with surge in homeless


Morning, noon and night in Chinatown they yell at the sky, mutter obscenities, and sleep in doorways where they sometimes reek of urine — or worse.

To frustrated, angry and scared business owners and residents, homeless people are not only ever-present but they are the source of on-going frustrations and concerns in Chinatown.

City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, whose district includes Chinatown, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email that “Business owners, residents and area legislators agree that conditions are much worse than they were last year. I receive daily complaints and reports of illegal activity, with photos.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a Hawaii island emergency room physician, won election in November and moved his young family to the edge of Chinatown in December.

Green now calls Chinatown “ground zero” for both homeless activity and for programs that carry the hope of making a difference for both Chinatown and other parts of the state struggling with similar homeless-related issues.

On a walk throughout Chinatown recently wearing hospital scrubs, jeans, black running shoes and a medical bag over his shoulder, he encountered the range of people who co-exist there — from residents to homeless people and tourists alike.

“The problem continues to surge and they (merchants, residents and others) don’t see results quickly enough,” Green said. “I don’t think we need to pull our punches. There’s a wave coming.”

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock — who simultaneously holds the positions of chairwoman of the Downtown-­Chinatown Neighborhood Board and president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association — is so angry that she wants to throw out due process and begin locking up homeless people indefinitely.

Asked how long their prison sentences should be, Shubert-Kwock had an immediate response:

“Until they get well,” she said.

“I get very angry,” Shubert-Kwock said. “What about my civil rights as a taxpaying citizen? … We are at the point — we are at a breaking point.”

Not a new problem

The prevailing theory — even among some homeless people in Chinatown — is that more homeless people began moving in after the city imposed its first “sit-lie” ban in Waikiki in 2015; and that on-going sweeps along nearby Nimitz Highway and Aala Park continue to funnel homeless people into the 52.2-acre historic parcel of land Green calls ground zero.

But Kimo Carvalho, spokesman for the Institute for Human Services, said that most of Chinatown’s homeless have been there for years.

“The theory that the sit-lie law in Waikiki is pushing people into Chinatown is not true,” Carvalho said. “The fact of the matter is that the majority of homeless are from this Chinatown region.”

The annual nationwide homeless census called the Point in Time Count offers little guidance about how many people are homeless in Chinatown because it lumps Chinatown in with a much larger area called “downtown” that actually stretches from Halawa Heights through downtown Honolulu and into Kakaako.

In the downtown area, Point in Time Count volunteers found 594 people who were living “unsheltered” in January 2018.

A year’s worth of social service outreach by IHS, however, found that 172 people were homeless in Chinatown throughout 2018 — the first year that IHS began collecting a year’s worth of daily homeless data for Chinatown and other parts of Oahu.

More importantly, Carvalho said that 158 homeless people in Chinatown became new IHS clients in 2018 and have since gotten IHS’ assistance in applying for financial benefits, getting their government identifications back, transportation, housing, shelter and other services.

“This homeless population is wanting help,” Carvalho said. “The fact that 158 out of the 172 clients we served are newly engaged in the process of ending their homeless situation is huge.”

But Carvalho acknowledged that complaints persist.

“There’s a drug population coming in from Aala park, where they sleep,” he said. “And there’s another crowd, who are nonviolent, who are coming from the outside for food or services. There’s a lot of urination and defecation. You walk down Nuuanu and you can smell it. It’s really bad. The clients are using the streets as a bathroom.”

The 172 homeless people counted by IHS outreach workers mirrors the number that Honolulu police officer Elvin “Boom” Bumanglag sees on the street.

“That seems about right,” Bumanglag said. “Nothing less than that.”

Bumanglag, a Honolulu Police Department crime reduction unit officer, walks through Chinatown about once a week with senior citizens who live in the Kekaulike Courtyards apartments above Kekaulike Market.

A place to blend in


Size of Honolulu’s Chinatown in terms of acreage

The nonprofit Chinatown Improvement District represents more than 300 business owners, property owners and residents in and out of Chinatown

Number of free meals that River of Life Mission hands out each month in Chinatown

Number of boxed meals that River of Life provides each month to low-income and senior citizen clients in Chinatown

Sources: City and County of Honolulu, Chinatown Improvement District, River of Life Mission

For generations, Chinatown welcomed newly arrived immigrants into a working-class community where homeless people often found it easy to blend in.

“Historically, Chinatown has always been a hub for different immigrant groups and people who are just trying to get on their feet,” Carvalho said. “Definitely people helped each other out.”

As recently as 2003, homelessness in Chinatown was barely an issue when HPD Capt. Mike Lambert started his career as a rookie assigned to the Chinatown substation, located at the corner of Maunakea and North Hotel streets.

“It wasn’t like this,” Lambert said recently as he and HPD Sgt. Joseph Oneal walked throughout Chinatown. “It was gambling and prostitution. People weren’t talking about homelessness. … Now we’re at a tipping point. Mental illness, substance abuse is what really creates the problem in Chinatown. It’s right in your face, which leads to fear and frustration.”

Robert Bell, 62, had just spent the night sleeping on Smith Street and has been homeless on Oahu for three years. Bell said he moved to Chinatown after spending 10 years in an Arizona prison for selling cocaine.

Bell called Chinatown “one of the cheapest areas. Waikiki is a lot of rich people. Chinatown is poorer, really. I feel more welcomed, more accepted.”

Bell said he believes many homeless people in Chinatown “want to be homeless. Some are on drugs. Others — they have a broken spirit.”

Outreach and medical care

As state and county officials continue to work on ideas to reduce homelessness across all of the islands, much of the emphasis is focused specifically on complaints coming out of Chinatown, which opened the first Joint Outreach Center just over a year ago to provide medical care, clothes and hygiene kits along with referrals for other services at IHS in nearby Iwilei.

At the end of the Joint Outreach Center’s first year on April 8, doctors and medical students from the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine had treated 1,486 different patients at both IHS and the Joint Outreach Center, according to Andy Mounthongdy, executive director of the Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui known as H4, which runs the Joint Outreach Center in the same building that houses HPD’s Chinatown substation.

Mounthongdy said 53.4% of the patients were treated at IHS and 46.6% at the JOC.

The 1,486 patients do not “include people who are delusional and cannot give us a name,” said Cheryl Guzikowski, clinical coordinator of H4. “We have a lot of dementia.”

The number also does not include homeless patients treated on the street by 45 medical students from the UH who did not follow up on the students’ invitation to come into the clinic for basic, free medical care.

The idea is to treat simple wounds both on the street and especially at the Joint Outreach Center to prevent costly ambulance rides to The Queen’s Medical Center. Green said treating homeless people at the JOC is now saving Queen’s $105,000 a week.

‘Sit-lie’ and sweeps

After Waikiki, a “sit-lie” ban was imposed for the area that includes Chinatown’s main business district — where homeless people continue to sleep in private doorways and on city sidewalks day and night.

Just outside the sit-lie ban area, dozens of tents and structures still line River Street mauka to Vineyard Boulevard each week. They disappear whenever city crews move in to sweep the area, only to reappear to newly cleaned River Street the next day.

Like so many others, one man — who promised that his name was Charlie Brown, age 39 — claimed to have a simple solution to ending Hawaii’s homeless problem — America’s highest rate per capita.

Standing in front of his encampment on River Street with his poi pit bull, “Funga Poi,” he said three years living on the street gave him the answer:

“Preserve the land for the Hawaiians,” Brown said.

Frustration bubbles over

Ralph Fine of Kalihi enjoyed a recent day off from his job as a security guard by eating breakfast in Chinatown, then walked down North Hotel Street to wait for TheBus to take him into Waikiki for the rest of the day.

As Fine stood by himself, a thin stranger jaywalked across North Hotel Street and began yelling and swearing at Fine, who backed away several times and even turned his back to the man.

Finally, Fine — who was much taller and bigger than the other man — began walking toward him. The man responded by back-pedalling into North Hotel Street several times, only to pursue Fine each time Fine retreated to wait for TheBus.

A Star-Advertiser reporter got between the two men as TheBus approached.

“I said, ‘Why are you bugging me?’” Fine said just before boarding TheBus.

The man who harassed Fine declined to be interviewed or identify himself as he yelled and swore his way down North Hotel Street.

It was just before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday.

It’s unclear whether the man who harassed Fine is actually homeless.

“Some do participate in illegal activity,” Capt. Lambert said. “But, definitely, the homeless get blamed for a lot of things. There’s just a lot of frustration, so the homeless tend to be the first people blamed. They tend to get demonized out of frustration.”

At the same time, a gang of teenagers from nearby public housing is suspected of causing a variety of crimes in Chinatown in the last few years — from graffiti to vandalism to purse-snatchings to felony assaults.

Their victims are sometimes homeless people who themselves are getting beaten and robbed, Lambert said.

“We the ones get the blame,” said Wendell Miguel, 55, who is from Waianae but the night before slept on Smith Street.

‘They think we’re a magnet’

While city and state officials consider expanding homeless services in Chinatown, the city is pressuring one of Chinatown’s oldest homeless-related organizations — River of Life Mission — to move its three-meals-a-day feeding operation to Iwilei.

Business owners, residents and tourists don’t like to see dozens of homeless — and low-income residents — lined up for three meals a day on North Pauahi Street waiting to be fed, and believe River of Life is enabling homeless people.

“They want us out of Chinatown,” said Bob Marchant, River of Life’s executive director. “They think we’re a magnet.”

River of Life provides 15,000 meals per month and another 800 boxed meals to low-income and senior citizen clients.

Marchant estimates that 15 percent of the people who receive free food through River of Life are low-income Chinatown residents.

Without free meals provided by River of Life, Marchant said more Chinatown residents — senior citizens, in particular — could end up homeless.

“If we leave,” Marchant said, “they think suddenly there’s not going to be any homeless in Chinatown.”

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