The chairwoman of the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center, located in the heart of the enduring Kakaako homeless encampment, suggested in January that the center close in the face of a 30 percent drop in revenue over the past two years, according to an email that Loretta Yajima sent to her state landlord and some lawmakers last month.
Even though social service outreach and city sweeps have knocked the Kakaako homeless population down from more than 300 in the summer of 2015 to roughly 30 to 50 now on any given night, Yajima suggested that attendance and revenue continue to be a problem for the Children’s Discovery Center, which moved from Dole Cannery to its current site at an abandoned city incinerator in December 1998.
In her email to the Hawaii Community Development Authority and city and state lawmakers who represent the area, Yajima began: “Everyone thinks the problem has gotten better for us because they do not see 300-plus tents surrounding our building anymore; however, the urine and feces (both human and animal) still persist on our property. … As you know, we stay away from making any statements to the media because when the press comes out with a story we suffer loss of the public’s confidence, and during the past two years we suffered a good 30 percent loss in income. In addition, we also get heavily criticized for not being compassionate by those organizations and agencies who are trying to help the homeless with housing. On the other hand, media coverage seems to be the ONLY thing that motivates action. I feel that is sad because it does not tell the whole story.”
Yajima’s email outlined a long list of problems that included complaints about trash, mosquitoes and vandalism to the center’s electrical and water supplies.
She wrote that she suggested to her board of directors in January that they close the center — a proposal she said the board unanimously rejected.
Following her email to the HCDA — which charges the nonprofit Discovery Center $1 a year to lease the land — Yajima spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and Hawaii News Now in a joint interview on Monday.
At one point, the center saw 120,000 visits annually, Yajima said. But “in the past four or five years, we’ve seen our numbers dwindle. It’s been a little difficult.” She declined to provide more recent attendance figures.
“I think people are afraid,” she said. “They’re afraid to park in the lots because they have their cars broken into. With some of the news stories that have come out about people getting beat up in the area, I can’t really blame people.”
Asked repeatedly if children and their families are safe coming to the center, Yajima finally said she could give an “unqualified” answer: “You’re not going to find a place that’s as safe as the Children’s Discovery Center is.”
Later, in a follow-up email to the Star-Advertiser, Yajima wrote: “Some parents have said that their kids beg them to come to the Discovery Center, but when they drive through the area they do not feel safe and will not come back until the state does something to clean up the park. Many others have told us that when they decided to park in the public lots and come into the center anyway, that the experiences they had, once inside, made any doubts about coming to the center disappear. They have all expressed appreciation for what we do and sympathize with our situation. … Is the Children’s Discovery Center safe? Absolutely. Do we have a problem in the area? No question about it.”
Yajima repeatedly said she hoped her rare interview with the Star-Advertiser and HNN would result in “balanced” stories of the “hope and promise” of the center.
Yajima noted that this week the center is hosting the Asia Pacific Children’s Museum Conference, with most of the events at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. A reception Wednesday night at the Children’s Discovery Center was expected to attract about 100 conference attendees.
Yajima sent an earlier email about Kakaako’s homeless population to lawmakers and others on June 24, 2015. Less than a week later, on June 30, state Rep. Tom Brower (D, Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kakaako) returned to the encampment to photograph it. Brower was chased to the front steps of the Children’s Discovery Center, where he was beaten by a mob, leaving him with cuts and bruises.
“Children stood on the front porch with their parents watching him get beat up,” Yajima told the Star-Advertiser and HNN this week.
She acknowledged spending “thousands of dollars” to repair vandalism to the center, including profanity on the center’s banners. Asked to specify the damage and cost, Yajima said, “I’m not divulging that.”
Yajima did say that she has received physical threats, but demurred when asked by HNN if she feels she is being retaliated against. “I’d prefer not to answer that question, either,” she said. “It’s a very conflicting situation.”
Yajima said she did not mean for any of her emails to lawmakers and the HCDA to become public. “It was a moment of weakness when I wrote the letter to HCDA,” she said. “I was a little bit naive thinking I was sending a personal letter. … I find myself in this uncomfortable predicament talking about it. … I didn’t want people, the families … to be afraid to come to Kakaako.”
HCDA spokesman Garrett Kamemoto said the agency continues to work with the Children’s Discovery Center and “with the state homeless coordinator, social service agencies and also sheriff’s deputies and HPD to address various problems as much as we can.”
David Striph, who serves on the center’s board of directors, offered an unqualified endorsement of its safety for parents and children.
“Go down there, absolutely,” Striph said. “I would take my kids down there. It’s a very unique experience for Honolulu.”
Striph, who is executive vice president-Hawaii of the Howard Hughes Corp., serves on seven boards of directors but said his term on the Children’s Discovery Center board has been unlike any other.
Asked how he came to serve on the center’s board, Striph said: “Loretta just bugged me until I couldn’t say no, which is typical for her. She can be persuasive. She’s unique with this one. It’s her baby. It’s a labor of love for Loretta, there’s no doubt about that. Most people would have given up by now, but not Loretta.”