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Virtual town hall to discuss proposed Chinatown homeless center related to COVID-19

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Institute for Human Services is receiving $2.6 million to establish a homeless triage and comfort station at a three-story building in Chinatown. Some of the area’s businesses and residents are up in arms because they found out about it by reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Institute for Human Services is receiving $2.6 million to establish a homeless triage and comfort station at a three-story building in Chinatown. Some of the area’s businesses and residents are up in arms because they found out about it by reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Francis Wong worked May 22 at Jenny’s Lei and Flowers at 65 N. Beretania St.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Francis Wong worked May 22 at Jenny’s Lei and Flowers at 65 N. Beretania St.

Plans for what’s being called a Homeless Triage and CARES Center in Chinatown will be the subject of a “virtual town hall” being held this afternoon by the Institute for Human Services, the project’s sponsor.

The city’s tentative decision to grant IHS $2.6 million in federal funding for the project, which would take over a three-story North Beretania Street building that’s the current home of Jenny’s Lei Shop, has drawn the ire of residents, merchants and elected officials. Many said they first learned of the proposal in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser article earlier this month.

Connie Mitchell, IHS executive director, told the Star-Advertiser that the purchase has not yet been finalized and that the project will not proceed at least until her nonprofit can meet with the community. Mitchell said IHS staff also will be available to answer questions at Thursday’s regularly scheduled Downtown- Chinatown Neighborhood Board meeting, if it is held.

To join today’s 3 p.m. town hall, which is using Zoom technology, go to ihshawaii.org/services/chinatown.

City Community Services Director Pam Witty-Oakland said the funding is tied to the CARES Act’s new Community Development Block Grant funds, part of the federal government’s strategy to counteract the ill effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,  an assembled selection committee moved quickly in recommending projects because HUD wants grantees to use the money to assist communities during the pandemic.

Witty-Oakland, in a statement, stressed, however, that “the proposed funding remains contingent on the completion of Due Diligence,” a process that includes completing an environmental assessment, capital needs assessment, appraisal and detailed land parcel map.

An environmental assessment would take months to complete and involve further opportunity for community input.

“There’s still an opportunity for us to have lots of dialogue,” Witty-Oakland told the City Council Economic Assistance and Revitalization Committee on Wednesday.

Area Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga said she was surprised to learn that the IHS grant had been made because she knew nothing about it beforehand. “There are so many questions that have not been answered at this point,” she said. “As a courtesy, if somebody is going to construct something or make a major change, you would want to reach out to your neighbor before you did anything, right?”

Fukunaga, state Sen. Karl Rhoads and state Rep. Daniel Holt fired off a letter to Mayor Kirk Caldwell last week urging the city to “halt action on this proposal” until residents and merchants can sit down with the city and IHS officials.

“Community stakeholders deserve an explanation on why a homeless respite facility in this portion of the Chinatown Special District is justified,” the letter said, noting that the Downtown Neighborhood Board is slated to meet Thursday.

Similar disapproval was voiced in a Star-Advertiser column Sunday by Chinatown Improvement Association President Lee Stack, Chinatown Business & Community Association founder and President Chu Lan Shubert-Kwok and United Chinese Society of Hawaii President Teddy Chong.

The column said the city has tried numerous initiatives to reduce homelessness and crime in the area but that both problems still persist.

Longtime Chinatown area resident Lynne Matusow, who lives in a condominium across Beretania Street from the location, said there are still too many unanswered questions about the project. “There was no community consultation at all,” Matusow said. “No one seems to know whether they have actual title to the building or not; nobody knows the hours of operation; nobody knows what they’re going to do there. We’ve got a lot of crime in the immediate area.”

Mitchell told the Council committee Wednesday that she hopes the misconceptions can be dispelled with her agency’s outreach efforts.

The facility’s main objectives with the center are to reduce the risk of infection for the Chinatown community and its visitors, reduce loitering and disruption of visitors and “to get chronically homeless individuals off the street permanently and, in doing so, help revitalize the area that has been so hit hard with the COVID effects,” Mitchell said.

The program is not designed to bring in walk-in homeless from around the island, but to bring in downtown-Chinatown’s chronically homeless individuals “where we can … assess them and diagnose their needs before moving them to shelter or other long-term housing,” she said.

IHS officials also said that the center is not designed to be a drop-in center, and will provide services only to those working directly with a case manager. The program is projected to serve about 200 chronically homeless individuals annually, each with a stay of about three days.

Francis Wong, owner of Jenny’s Lei Shop the past 16 years, said he was told two weeks ago that he would have three months to move out. Wong said the property was placed on the market more than a year ago and that he’s been on a month-to-month lease.

He’d like to relocate to somewhere else in Chinatown, “but it’s hard to find a place with refrigeration, bathrooms and a relatively small area,” Wong said.

IHS officials said they are helping him to relocate.

For more details about the project, go to ihshawaii.org/services/chinatown.

Correction: There is a six-year draw-down period for CARES Act Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant Funds, unlike other CARES money which must be spent by the end of the year. An earlier version of this story said the money tied to the Chinatown project must be spent by the end of the year. Also, Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock is founder and president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association. An earlier version of this story misidentified her organization.

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