Editorial: Chinatown needs homeless effort
Chinatown has known homelessness for decades, but as the crisis has deepened over the years, the problems for its community have become untenable.
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Chinatown has known homelessness for decades, but as the crisis has deepened over the years, the problems for its community have become untenable. What is one of Oahu’s oldest neighborhoods has become a case study of the unsheltered and their plight, and the conflicts with those who hope to live and work there more conventionally.
“Chinatown Homeless,” a five-part series by Honolulu Star-Advertiser writer Dan Nakaso, offered a sharp close-up focused on how the homeless survive on the streets. It’s a brutal existence, bristling with the hazards of urban crime and disease compounding the already grim conditions.
The chronicle underscored the desperate need for services, for outreach to steer the newly homeless back toward shelter before they become too hardened to the life, and for sensitivity about the way all of this affects the community at large.
In the midst of the dire statistics — the density of Oahu’s homeless population ranks among the nation’s worst, and the census is declining at a barely perceptible rate — there may be some hope.
The state Legislature has passed a bill, with needed funding for staffing, that clarifies the process of compelling a mentally ill patient to receive outpatient treatment — what’s known as “assisted community treatment.” This, said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, may improve the lives of 40-50 homeless people in Chinatown, and hundreds others throughout the state.
Green, with a background in emergency medicine, has said such intervention can divert many from frequent emergency-room visits that put a heavy cost burden on the social safety net.
The same is true of another new addition to the health-care landscape: the Joint Outreach Center, which shares a building with the Honolulu Police Department Chinatown substation. The JOC provides free medical care three days a week. In just a year it has treated nearly 1,500 individuals at the Chinatown location and the Institute for Human Services.
Patients descend on the facility from across the island, much to the surprise of the Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui that runs it.
The nonprofit is soon to complete the renovation of its Iwilei property, with hygiene services provided on the first floor, topped by health services, medical respite accommodations and housing on the upper floors.
That will become a logical place to direct other, complementary services as well. The River of Life Mission has served meals to the homeless and low-income clients for many years from its North Pauahi Street location. But now businesses and residents have grown weary of the long lines of homeless and other people who line up early to get a seat inside for a free meal.
They do have a reasonable concern. Shops cannot conduct their business if the sidewalks become overwhelmed by the mission’s clients, day after day.
Rightly, the city is working to persuade River of Life leadership to relocate its meal service to an Iwilei building, near its new Punawai Rest Stop, a hygiene center for the homeless. This would make sense.
If River of Life does seal a deal with the city, its officials say, its Chinatown mission could be converted to a retail operation that could provide job training. That would potentially be a resource for the wider community as well.
And it would fulfill a need for the homeless that goes beyond shelter: preparation for some return to a productive routine. Almost as much as people need food and shelter, they need purpose in life, a place in the community. Similar work programs have been components of other successful homeless initiatives, such as Kahauiki Village.
Mission leaders raise a good point, however: The soup kitchen also caters to the low-income residents of the area, to a limited extent. A way must be sought to accommodate that service or similarly compensate for it.
Encouragingly, residents and businesses have partnered in solutions to improve security for those living and working in Chinatown, such as retaining guards to make patrols and keep their front stoop clear of vagrants who sleep there and block passage. This is the level of resilience necessary to reclaim Chinatown as a community that all can share.
The ongoing efforts in Chinatown will need to be amplified and replicated throughout Oahu. Even more critically, the bottom-line solution is for government and nonprofit partners to deliver more units so that rehousing programs can be effective.
It’s an agonizingly slow process, with the result that overall homelessness on Oahu notched only a 1% decline, according to the most recent Point in Time census.
Now and then, however, the community can see inroads being made. One more individual, one more family finds a haven of safety and stability. It takes an almost endless store of patience from the health and social workers who reach out, again and again, to build a bond of trust.
They are owed a debt of thanks — and the support they need for their continued service.