The first occupants will move into the city’s new Punawai Rest Stop studio apartments in Iwilei around Thanksgiving, months ahead of schedule, offering outgoing Mayor Kirk Caldwell and outgoing City Councilman Joey Manahan an opportunity to bookend their five-year-long partnership to reduce homelessness.
Punawai Rest Stop was part of a flurry of city and state projects and programs born after one of America’s largest homeless encampments, including children and working parents, sprang up in Kakaako in 2015, when Hawaii led the country with the highest per capita homeless rate.
Like other homeless-related projects that Manahan embraced in and around his Kalihi district, Punawai Rest Stop is an untested model in Hawaii and, in some ways, the most ambitious.
It was created out of the former 43,000-square-foot Malihini Sportswear factory on Kuwili Street, and construction is now complete, Caldwell announced Tuesday.
The first-floor hygiene center has been operating for two years, but the first permanent residents are expected to move into 21 studio apartments on the third and fourth floors by the end of the month, Caldwell said. The project is intended as permanent housing with social service case management.
The city previously said the residential units were not expected to be complete until late January.
Journalists attending Caldwell’s Tuesday announcement were not allowed to see the upper floors because the apartments and communal kitchen area have been sanitized in preparation for the first residents, he said.
A second-floor health clinic on what’s now called a mezzanine level is unique in the country, Caldwell said, because it will offer “medical respite” bed space for homeless patients to recuperate, as any patients would in their homes.
Caldwell choked up at an outdoor news conference when he spoke about what dignified health care and permanent housing mean to Oahu’s homeless on the eve of the holiday season.
“I’m just in awe and blown away by how we’ve come together as a people to continue on a path of compassion in a world that lacks much compassion, in a country that lacks much compassion,” Caldwell said. “We here on Oahu have shown great compassion and love in the most difficult of times, and that speaks to the very nature of who we are as people and what Punawai stands for.”
Manahan said Oahu’s 2015 homeless crisis helped disarm animosities between the City Council and Caldwell’s administration when homeless-related efforts such as the city’s first ban on sitting and lying in Waikiki helped create an unsanitary and crime-ridden encampment of more than 300 homeless people around Kakaako Waterfront Park and the University of Hawaii medical school.
“I have to say that even our relationship — the City Council’s with the administration — wasn’t even that good,” Manahan said as he stood across the street from Punawai Rest Stop. “But, really, it was the issue of homelessness that brought us together. And we understood that if we were to get anywhere to help the situation, we would have to collaborate, and it would have to be an all-hands-on-deck approach. … Back then it seemed like a really long road to get where we are now.”
For the past two years, the Punawai Rest Stop has been welcoming chronically and newly homeless adults into its first-floor hygiene center.
The clients can cage their pets while they disinfect their belongings of bugs, wash their clothes, take showers, use the bathroom, recharge cellphones and use computers, among other services.
Already this year 3,000 individuals have used the hygiene center, an increase from 2,200 in 2019, said Greg Payton, CEO of Mental Health Kokua, which operates the hygiene center.
Approximately 54,000 loads of laundry have been washed and dried at the center, 78,000 showers taken and — perhaps most important — 227 homeless people housed already this year, an increase from 102 last year, Payton said.
“Those are people who would not have been housed otherwise,” Payton said.
The next phase is the opening of the 21 studio apartments. And then, sometime around next summer, the final phase of Punawai Rest Stop is scheduled to open with a medical clinic and “respite” beds.
The idea is to care for homeless patients and take some pressure off overwhelmed paramedic and emergency room services while treating conditions that can get worse on the street, such as wounds that can turn septic in unsanitary conditions.
Allowing patients to heal at the Punawai Rest Stop until they’re healthy enough to return to the street — or move into stable housing — offers an additional level of compassion unlike any other, said Andy Mounthongdy, executive director of the Hawaii Homeless Healthcare Hui, also known as H4, which will operate the clinic.
“These folks have already been shunned by the community,” Mounthongdy said. “They lose their dignity. So what we want to do is just provide that dignity back to them by providing them a place to rest.”