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Institute for Human Services drops proposal for homeless facility

  • Video by George F. Lee / glee@staradvertiser.com

    The Institute for Human Services has nixed plans for a homeless triage center in Chinatown.

In response to vast opposition from area residents and businesses, the Institute for Human Services has canceled its plans to develop a proposed triage and comfort station for the homeless at a building in Chinatown.

In a statement Tuesday, IHS said, “IHS has initially identified a property on Beretania Street, however after due diligence, including discussions with current tenants and the community, IHS has determined that the property is not ideal and will continue to look for property with the desired configuration for a triage and transfer station.”

The organization’s decision to cancel plans to acquire the building at 65 N. Beretania St. comes after overwhelming opposition by tenants who attended a board meeting Monday at Honolulu Tower, a condominium building across from the location, as well as opposition voiced at a virtual town hall meeting Friday attended by more than 170 people.

Photo Gallery: Community leaders respond after plans for homeless station in Chinatown nixed

“We listen to what people have to say and have gotten an overwhelming response that people appreciate the work we do to end homelessness, but many were not in favor of the selected site. We will continue to look for the right location for this endeavor,” IHS said.

IHS had planned to use $2.6 million in U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant funds to acquire and renovate a three-story building currently occupied by businesses such as Jenny’s Lei Shop and Nita’s Leis and Flower Shoppe.

In a statement, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said, “In partnering with homeless service providers, we believe in the goals of the Homeless Triage and Comfort Station to get mentally ill persons off the street, but we believe it is a prudent decision to take a step back from this site and collaborate with community leaders on locations that would be better suited.”

“The city invited public comment beginning May 13, and we have heard from community members that this isn’t the right location, so we will partner to find other options for a much-needed stabilization program,” he added.

At a news conference held Tuesday in front of the Beretania Street building, area lawmakers and community leaders, including former Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie, reiterated their opposition and recommended Iwilei as a potential location for the short-term facility.

Honolulu Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who represents District 6 — which encompasses portions of Makiki, downtown Honolulu, Punchbowl to Moanalua, Halawa and portions of Liliha and Kalihi — said, “The thing that we would like to see is that we all work together to follow up on many of the investments that the city has already made in Iwilei.”

A men’s shelter and women and children’s homeless shelter operated by IHS and the Punawai Rest Stop are in Iwilei. The upper floors of the rest stop are slated to be used for housing. Fukunaga said having all services, facilities and housing for the homeless in one location is ideal.

Owner Francis Wong of Jenny’s Lei Shop, who was told a few weeks ago that he would have up to three months to vacate the building, welcomed IHS’ announcement. “Good, I get to stay here,” he said.

Wong has operated the lei shop for the past 16 years and was on a month-to-month lease when the property was placed on the market more than a year ago.

At the news conference, Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, founder and president of the Chinatown Business & Community Association, said, “We are inundated with homeless services that start off well and (are) not well maintained.”

Longtime Chinatown resident Lynne Matusow said the proposed triage center “was put together haphazardly.”

“Residents do not want this,” she added.

IHS Executive Director Connie Mitchell said many people support the concept of the triage center, “but they felt the location was really poor.”

The goals for the short-term facility were to reduce homelessness in Chinatown, where homelessness is the most dense, and to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A center in Chinatown would be easier for staff to facilitate services, Mitchell said. “Given that we can’t do that right now, we’ll look at what our other options are.”

Pamela Witty-Oakland, director of the city Department of Community Services, said the proposed triage center was to comprise six beds to help stabilize the chronically homeless for a few days with meals and medical treatment. This was not meant to be a long-term facility or a drop-in center, she said.

The city plans to put out another notice for the available $2.6 million to seek other projects. The deadline to use the federal grant money is two years.

IHS may reapply for the funds.

Witty-Oakland said the city wholeheartedly supports IHS’ concept of the triage center and will continue to look for solutions for the proposed facility.

Correction: Lynne Matusow’s first name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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