A Kaimuki couple with a new city contract to provide mobile hot showers for Oahu’s homeless are defying the city in two ways: by continuing to operate twice a month next to the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center and by regularly feeding about 50 homeless people in the area.
Danica Fong-Shoji had two words to describe the city’s prohibition on offering hot showers and food to homeless people in a public park that is the epicenter of Kakaako’s homeless problem:
“It’s dumb,” she said.
She added, “If they want to arrest me, go ahead.”
Concerns about what to do about the homeless living around the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center went before two state Senate committees this week: the Committee on Human Services and the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs, which jointly passed a nonbinding resolution urging the creation of a state and county task force “to collaborate and prioritize their homelessness efforts in the area surrounding the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center.”
The head of the center has said it may be forced to close because of illegal homeless activity, including vandalism and drug dealing.
Fong-Shoji said she and her husband are just trying to do whatever they can to help the homeless across Oahu.
“I cannot provide them with housing, which is beyond what I can do, and I cannot deal with their mental health issues, which is beyond me,” she said.
Fong-Shoji and her husband, Craig Shoji, founded the local branch of Laundry Love four years ago to provide laundry services to homeless people in Waimanalo.
They both have full-time jobs: She’s a 50-year-old certified public accountant, and he’s a 54-year-old safety manager.
After launching Laundry Love, the couple wanted to do more and won a $400,000 contract for five years to operate Oahu’s second mobile “hygiene center,” called Revive + Refresh, which they began towing to homeless encampments across the island in November.
They’ve taken their shower trailer to Hauula Beach Park, Nanakuli Beach Park, Pope Elementary School in Waimanalo, Kaimuki High School, Parker United Methodist Church in Kaneohe and Beretania Community Park on the edge of Chinatown.
Thursday night marked the seventh time that they’ve parked their trailer on Kelikoi Street on the Ewa side of the Children’s Discovery Center, their most visited location by far.
But city and state officials are discouraging people and organizations from bringing food to homeless encampments, especially in parks. Instead, they say homeless people will get both food and professional help at homeless shelters.
In an emailed statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Pam Witty-Oakland, director of the city’s Department of Community Services, said:
“The city continues to work with the service-resistant population at Kakaako Waterfront Park to offer shelter, services, and permanent housing. City staff maintains ongoing dialog with Revive + Refresh and encourages hygiene and outreach services to the persons experiencing homelessness in the vicinity of Kakaako and the existing land-owner partners. We appreciate the support Revive + Refresh provides to communities across the island, including in Kakaako to address hygiene concerns in the area. However, the mobile hygiene center model relies upon partnering with private sector landowners, and Revive + Refresh have been asked to refrain from operating within, or next to city parks.”
The city is also urging the operators of Revive + Refresh to refrain from handing out food so that the focus is on encouraging the unsheltered population to accept services and not stay in places “unfit for human habitation.”
Several homeless people who enjoyed a meal and hot shower Thursday night had a different perspective.
Friends Anthony Olshefski, 67, and Kalani Nicolas, 59, said it had been two weeks since they had a hot shower.
“My last shower was the last time they came,” Olshefski said, gesturing toward people going in and out of the showers. “It’s the hot water that draws us in.”
Trying to clamp down on churches and organizations such as Revive + Refresh that provide food to the homeless is demeaning and insulting, Nicolas said.
“They’re saying, ‘Don’t feed the animals,’” he said. “They’re treating us like dogs, like animals.”
Revive + Refresh volunteer Kurt Himmler, 54, had been homeless for about two years in California and southern Nevada 20 years ago.
“It just chips away at your inner self-worth,” Himmler said. “You lose hope.”
Himmler’s homeless existence ended when a stranger offered to let him stay on his boat, where he could store his belongings, sleep in safety — and take hot showers.
“That was the turning point,” Himmler said. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, I see something in you.’”
The idea behind Revive + Refresh is based on a San Francisco model to give homeless people a dignified place to get clean while social service agencies offer a range of services, including alternatives to sleeping on the street.
So it only seemed logical to Shoji and Fong-Shoji to also serve their homeless clients food like rotisserie chicken, kimchee and chocolate chip cookies that they buy from Costco out of donations to their website, revive-refresh.org, and through their church, First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Koolau.
“We also get rice from Zippy’s,” Fong-Shoji said.
Annie Valentin, executive director of Project Vision Hawaii, operates its similar “Hiehie” mobile hygiene trailer on its own, without a city contract.
At the city’s request, though, “Hiehie” stays out of city parks, Valentin said, and definitely does not serve food.
But the defiant stance by the founders of Revive + Refresh could reignite the debate about staying out of parks.
“We currently are not operating in parks, as we have been told by the city,” Valentin said. “We have been advised by the city not to. The conversation around operating in parks and how it can be done is a continuing conversation that we should have with public and private stakeholders.”