Homeless flock to Iwilei rest stop, but few use social services


The number of homeless adults, children and pets using the city’s Punawai Rest Stop, a “hygiene center” in Iwilei, has steadily grown in less than a month of operation — from eight people on the first day to 174 on Thursday.

They include a homeless seventh-grader from Washington Middle School who got tutored in math after Punawai Rest Stop opened Jan. 8, to Prince Gregg, 37, who was charging his cracked cellphone Friday while using one of Punawai Rest Stop’s desktop computers to scroll the internet.

Gregg said a relationship breakup on Hawaii island forced him to move to Oahu three weeks ago, where he first tried living at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport and is now sleeping on the streets of Waikiki.

If he didn’t have a safe place to go Friday afternoon, Gregg said, “Right now I’d be sitting on a bench somewhere looking crazy, trying to figure out what to do.”

In Waikiki, Gregg was taking cold beach park showers until a stranger told him about Punawai Rest Stop, which offers washers and dryers, hot showers, mail service, a clean place to go to the bathroom and social service help through Mental Health Kokua — all while homeless clients can kennel their pets, lock up their belongings and get a bedbug zapper to heat their clothes and linens to 120 degrees to kill sometimes hundreds of bugs at once.

Everything is free.

Most of the pets who come into Punawai Rest Stop are dogs, but there have also been a rabbit and a guinea pig.

“I thought this was the coolest idea in the coolest place,” Gregg said. “Every state needs one of these.”

In all, Punawai Rest Stop’s services had been used 2,423 times by homeless people as of Tuesday. It’s unclear how many were repeat visitors.

But they’ve been respectful, and there’s never been a reason to call police, said Lani Taasan, Punawai Rest Stop’s lead center assistant.

As more than a dozen clients sat, walked around or took showers Friday, Pam Witty-Oakland, the city’s director of Community Services, said, “It’s everything that I anticipated.”

In just the first week, the number of daily showers went from eight on the first day to 74 just five days later.

However, no more than eight homeless clients on any given day have taken advantage of the on-site social services provided by Mental Health Kokua, which has a $1 million contract with the city to operate Punawai Rest Stop for one year, with an option to extend the contract up to four additional one-year terms.

Years of homeless outreach show that it takes time — and trust — before many homeless people will take the initial steps to actually get off the street, said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing.

“It’s going to take time,” Alexander said. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

The four-story Kuwili Street building was purchased by the city for $6.3 million in June 2016. The plan is to turn the mezzanine into a treatment center for medical and mental health needs.

The third and fourth floors are scheduled to be built into about 40 studio apartments for single adults and couples.

For now the challenge is to translate hundreds of showers into face-to-face relationships with homeless clients that could lead to housing.

Rita Kanvi, 69, isn’t quite there yet.

Even though she needs help getting government-issued identification, for now Kanvi is happy to be able to lock up her belongings and “take a shower, use a computer.”

Friday represented the fourth time that Kanvi has taken TheBus from her sleeping spots at either Thomas Square or Waimanalo Beach Park to get to the Punawai Rest Stop.

Her main purpose was to wash her clothes, take a warm shower and use a computer to communicate with her five children and four grandchildren who live in Hawaii and on the mainland.

Asked how she ended up homeless a year ago, Kanvi would only say, “It’s a long story.”

“Anybody can end up homeless,” she said. “If you miss one (housing) payment, you’re out.”

For Friday afternoon, at least, Kanvi had a safe place to hang out and get herself and her clothes clean while communicating with her children via email, Facebook and Instagram.

“We need this for the homeless,” Kanvi said. “This is a good idea.”


>> Location: 431 Kuwili St.

>> Open: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. 365 days a year

>> Services: Eight showers (last appointment at 6:30 p.m.); 10 washing machines and 10 dryers (last appointment at 6 p.m.); security; Wi-Fi; cellphone charging stations; desktop computers; mail service; bathrooms; two pet kennels; lockers and larger storage for shopping carts and bulkier items; free toiletries, including toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, shaving cream, shampoo and soap; bug zappers; and on-site housing and medical services.

>> Note: To donate toilet paper and hygiene products to the Punawai Rest Stop, contact Mental Health Kokua at 737-2523.

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