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Chinatown business owners frustrated with homeless

  • Video by Craig T. Kojima, Dennis Oda and Bruce Asato /, and

    An Institute for Human Services survey found that 172 people were homeless in Chinatown throughout 2018. Residents, merchants and police in Honolulu's historic Chinatown district are grappling with a growing homeless population.


    Oren Schlieman and his wife, Fran Butera, who own a business in Chinatown and say they are often frustrated by the homeless who trespass and destroy their property. They produced “Chinatown Watch” signs that are posted in about 50 storefronts.


    A man lay down on a North Hotel Street sidewalk as night fell last month. Problems in Chinatown have forced some businesses to pay for private security patrols.


    A man laid down in a doorway last month on Smith Street. Posted above him are “Chinatown Watch” signs.


    Piles of cardboard clog a Chinatown walkway.


    Chinatown vegetable stand owner Moises Almasco, left, and Chinatown Business & Community Association President Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock shared their frustrations about the homeless in the area.


    Above, signs are posted in a business’ window.


Chinatown business owners and married couple Oren Schlieman and Fran Butera symbolize the frustration of Chinatown merchants fed up with vandalism, trash, violence and illegal activity in their community.

They helped produce signs that are now displayed in about 50 Chinatown storefronts emblazoned with binoculars and a pair of yellow eyeballs advertising “Chinatown Watch” and “Take Back Chinatown.”

Schlieman, the president and creative director of Info Grafik on Maunakea Street, out of frustration also created a website seven months ago —

Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Dan Nakaso spent three weeks in Chinatown — from the early hours to late at night — interviewing business owners, police, homeless people, residents, tourists and government officials about homelessness in the historic district.

Tuesday: Through the eyes of those living on the streets
Wednesday: Honolulu police officers’ perspective
Thursday: What’s next for Chinatown?

The website offers pictures of people whom Schlieman says are urinating in public, splayed out on city sidewalks, having sex in open spaces, masturbating, vomiting, brawling and drinking in front of the Honolulu Police Department’s Chinatown substation. There are also several photos of what Schlieman believes is human feces.

His goal: “To publish what’s going on and get the attention of the people who can control it,” Schlieman said.

At the same time, Schlieman acknowledged the possibility that some of the people photographed on his website may not be homeless.

“The homeless most certainly are getting blamed for everyone,” he said.

But Schlieman said he believes many of Chinatown’s unwanted activities will be reduced if the city forces River of Life Mission to relocate its three-times-a-day feeding service to Iwilei, next to where the city continues to build out its new, four-story Punawai Rest Stop aimed at helping homeless clients.

“There’s chaos and fear on the street,” Schlieman said. “Get ‘em out of Chinatown. Put ‘em in Iwilei.”

Schlieman and Butera represent those who are angry and frustrated about homeless activity, said Eric Wong, who manages 76 low-income apartment units above Kekaulike Market and participates in a weekly walking patrol of Chinatown residents.

“They’re frustrated,” Wong said of Schlieman and Butera. “We all are.”

In April, Butera — who is the “gardener-in-chief” of Foodscapes Hawaii — arrived at work to find dried feces flung on the front door of the business.

The new signs appearing in Chinatown store fronts, she said, “helps everyone feel they’re not alone.”

Resorting to private patrols

In December, the Chinatown Improvement District helped organize a hui of a dozen or so businesses, that now contribute $70 a week for private security patrols.

The guards are authorized to enforce trespassing violations for the businesses’ privately owned Chinatown doorways — from Bethel to River streets and from North Pauahi to the edge of Beretania streets, according to Lee Stack, president of the Chinatown Improvement District.

The security guards also report violations of the city’s “sit-lie” law to police, Stack said.

After the first three months, the businesses extended the private patrols another three months until the end of May, Stack said.

Down by the Chinatown Cultural Plaza, a hui of six other business owners already were paying for private security patrols after a series of break-ins, of drug dealing and other problems including urination and defecation, said Cathleen Salas, owner of Dae Han Market.

“I tell tourists, ‘Please be gone by 3 or 4 o’clock. It just gets more dangerous,’” Salas said.

Barinna Poon, president of the Hong Kong Business Association of Hawaii, follows the same advice after she eats lunch in Chinatown each day.

Although she’s never had a problem, she said, “I’m very cautious. I only come during the day. Chinatown— there’s definitely more homeless. It’s really a problem now.”

Anita Troung, owner of Welcome Market across from Dae Han Market, said the problems go well beyond people who don’t have homes.

“There’s a lot of mental illness, a lot of drug abuse,” she said. “I’ve gotten robbed two times. There are break-ins. They’re targeting the elderly.”

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock — who is both chairwoman of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board and president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association — believes it’s time for a tougher approach to Chinatown’s homeless.

“We must stop coddling and enabling these substance abusers — we must be tough on drugs if we are serious about solutions for homelessness,” Shubert-Kwock wrote to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We must enforce drug laws and jail these offenders or place them into involuntary treatment if we are serious about saving our communities.”

Balancing civil liberties

Gregory Dunn, president and CEO of the Hawaii Theatre Center and the former president of the Better Business Bureau of Hawaii, said he believes the frustration experienced by Chinatown business owners has to be balanced against individual civil liberties.

“The challenge for us as a community is to determine how far we’re willing to erode personal civil liberties to force people into mental care,” Dunn said. “We’re beginning to see an increase in individuals who are houseless who need expanded care. How far do we go to erode civil liberties across the board toward what is a heart-breaking problem that has no simple answer?”

In March, the theater hosted a performance of “Allegiance,” a musical based on actor George Takei’s experience of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Following the performance, a panel discussed how to balance civil liberties against the needs of a larger community.

“The Japanese relocation camps were entirely based upon the entire erosion of a race of people,” Dunn said.

The city began trying to ease concerns of theater-goers in November 2014 by removing a filthy water feature from Chinatown’s Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, right next to the Hawaii Theatre.

Before, theater-goers would exit the theater doors to the sight of homeless people urinating and defecating in the water feature — and even washing their clothes in the fouled water. Residents and businesses also complained of drug dealing and sex in the park, which was populated with rats.

Complaints continued even after the city spent $250,000 to build a wrought-iron fence around the 0.4-acre park.

“The work the city has done to put up a fence around the park so we can better control the flow and the use of the park has been very helpful,” Dunn said. “What continues to be an ongoing challenge is the people within the houseless population who are resistant to receiving drug and alcohol abuse treatment and those that are mentally ill. There’s no way to candy coat the reality of someone living in a different mental space than the community collective.”

No one has been physically attacked, but the Hawaii Theatre Center has had plenty of problems with vandalism and some staff have been verbally assaulted, Dunn said.

“We’ve had people trying to break into the theater on multiple occasions and we have filed police reports,” Dunn said.

The theater has been tagged with graffiti multiple times and a thief who broke into a neighboring business late last year ended up breaking one of the theater’s awnings.

The awning cost $30,000 to replace. “We can’t find the resources to fix it,” Dunn said.

Even with surveillance footage, he said it’s impossible to determine whether the thief was homeless.

“It’s hard to blame one person or population for it,” he said. “The level of despair that that population finds themselves in — they resort to lashing out or breaking into things or stealing to survive. It’s definitely a symptom of the condition of which they are living. On the other side, you do have roving gangs of teens and young adults that we do see in the neighborhood that also present a challenge.”

During performances, the theater hires off-duty Honolulu police officers and private security guards “to ensure our patrons are not disturbed while coming to and from the theater,” Dunn said.

The result, Dunn said, is that some performances fill up the Hawaii Theatre and attract as many as 1,300 people into Chinatown.

“When it gets too busy they (homeless people) don’t want to be disturbed,” Dunn said.

The theater, Dunn said, then becomes “a huge economic driver for the community — and it’s better for the community.”



Amount that a dozen or so members of the Chinatown Improvement District pay each week for private security guards


Approximate number of Chinatown businesses that now display placards warning against sitting or lying on city sidewalks, along with other violations

Sources: Chinatown Improvement District, small business owners Oren Schlieman and Fran Butera

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