The keys to Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro’s controversial “safe house” in Makiki will soon be turned over to the city Department of Community Services, ending a rocky three-year existence for a facility that became a lightning rod of controversy from the time it opened.
The safe house, a 21-unit apartment building, provided free living space for female victims of domestic violence, sex assault and human trafficking. Residents were told in June they would need to vacate by the end of August. Community Services will take over the facility Oct. 1.
Critics have argued that because it was sponsored by the prosecutor’s office, there were potential ethical, legal and logistical issues. They argued the bests interests of an abused woman and the prosecutors’ office might not align.
The $5.5 million project has served 41 clients since it opened.
“Law enforcement has different goals, and in order to meet their goals, they put into place a program that isn’t entirely trauma-focused, client-centered and supportive,” said Nanci Kreidman, CEO of the Domestic Violence Action Center. “It has the potential to be more restrictive and more punitive, which is what the residents experienced.”
Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said Thursday that the city will soon put out a call for an entity to manage the property’s 21 units “as affordable rentals with a priority for survivors of domestic violence.” Rents would target households earning 50% of Oahu’s median income, Witty-Oakland told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email.
On Wednesday the Honolulu City Council voted unanimously to pass Resolution 19-166, urging the administration to establish a management plan for the complex.
Before Wednesday’s vote on his resolution, Council Public Safety Chairman Tommy Waters told colleagues that evidence shows a need for housing to be provided for Oahu’s domestic violence victims.
“Ultimately, it is clear that the safe house has not been run to benefit the victims amongst us,” Waters said. “That is why it’s so important for the city administration to take over management of the facility and develop a plan to use it for transitional or permanent housing for victims of domestic violence, sex assault and human trafficking as initially intended.”
Kreidman, who testified at Wednesday’s meeting in support of the resolution, applauded the move as one that will make a significant difference.
“The population of domestic violence survivors who become homeless and houseless is much larger than the community recognizes,” she said. “And all of the planning around preventing houselessness and addressing the needs of houseless people has not included survivors of domestic violence.”
She added, “This constituency is in flight, in danger and working to overcome a variety of barriers on their path to safety, self-sufficiency and single-parenting.”
Brooks Baehr, prosecutor’s office public information officer, said staff has been working with the Institute for Human Services, Family Promise of Hawaii and Partners in Care to find alternate accommodations for those who’ve been living there.
Since the closure was announced in June, four of seven residents have left, three of whom had two to three children living with them, Baehr said. Of the three with children, one has found permanent housing while the other two are in transitional housing, he said.
Staff is optimistic that the three women still there will find places to go, Baehr said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii said there were numerous complaints about unreasonable rules and restrictions.
But prosecutor officials said the policies were clearly stated to all before they agreed to join the program, and they insist the rules are in place for residents’ safety. Those included signing a waiver before leaving the facility on their own and being searched when they returned.
Five women have been booted for breaking the rules, Baehr said.
Critics said the rules discouraged people from wanting to live there, contributing to its low occupancy.
As for the charge that only those who agreed to testify could stay, Acting Prosecutor Dwight Nadamoto pointed out that the residents already made statements to police for there to be a case in the first place. “They have an active case,” he said. “I don’t see how having a safe house meant to protect them is somehow a conflict of interest. What we’re doing is just providing them a safe place to stay.”
Safe house resident Dorita Nelly Quiocho, 33, said she wants to stay at the facility and is OK with the strict house rules that came under criticism.
The safe house policy would have allowed her to stay up two years. Now, she said, she’s worried that her only options might be to live on the street — or go back to her abuser.
“Even though I was abused, she made sure I was never on the streets,” Quiocho said of her partner. “I know what happens on the streets. That’s my worst fear is being on the streets.”
She won’t qualify for a homeless shelter — until she’s actually on the street. “I just have to keep telling myself, ‘God’s closing one door, he’s going to open up another one.’”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell said in early July that the facility has been underutilized and that he expects that as a homeless facility, “we could get every single room filled with women and children, and that’s where we’re going with it.”