From his second-floor office window at the corner of Maunakea and Pauahi streets, Oren Schlieman has seen his share of problems in a neighborhood he has invested in, including public urination and street brawls.
At around noontime weekdays, he said, he routinely hears the rantings of the drunk and the mentally ill. There’s also the occasional naked person streaking by.
Schlieman, president and creative director of Info Grafik, said that for the past 15 years, he has witnessed much of it five days a week, and on some weekends, particularly in the last decade, while at the office in a building that he owns.
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic, Honolulu’s Chinatown is in even more need of help, according to Schlieman, not just with economic assistance, but with initiatives that clean up the trash-strewn streets and graffiti on buildings, prevent the homeless from loitering around without masks, and restore the vitality of the eclectic neighborhood.
These issues existed before the pandemic, he said, but are worse now.
Without the same volume of visitors, many businesses struggling to make rent have cut back their hours, closed their doors or boarded up their windows.
“I think what the pandemic did was exaggerate the problems in Chinatown,” he said. “It was sort of like a shock to the system. Basically, what it did is show the weaknesses in how the city runs it.”
The lowest point, he said, was when the city stopped enforcing sit-lie laws due to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control to allow homeless to shelter in place.
“Basically, what happened is it became a free-range homeless place, and homeless people were all over the place,” he said. “They basically took over Chinatown.”
In June, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced a series of improvement projects in Chinatown, including the power- washing of sidewalks, monitoring of illegal trash dumping and new LED fixtures at Kekaulike Mall, along with improved security.
But Schlieman says he hasn’t seen a difference. Pigeon poop and human excrement can still be found on sidewalks within the 15-block neighborhood, he said, pointing them out during a recent tour, and graffiti is still visible on numerous buildings.
Having artists put their artwork on utility boxes is nice, he said, but does not really address the underlying issues.
A huge source of problems, according to Schlieman and Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock of the Chinatown Business and Community Association, is that homeless service providers, like River of Life Mission, are adding to the problems by giving out free meals but not taking responsibility for their impact on the neighborhood.
In a September survey conducted by Chinatown community members, 94% of about 100 businesses said homelessness harms their operations, and about 83% of 130 customers said they were hesitant to shop in Chinatown.
The comments submitted in the survey — some anonymously and some not — mention swearing, public urination, drug use and mentally unstable individuals walking around and yelling without masks on.
In October the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board passed a resolution recommending that homeless feeding operations, due to their harmful impacts, move to the immediate vicinity of existing services and that operators be required to obtain a street closure permit.
Due to the pandemic, River of Life, a nonprofit that feeds the homeless, switched to serving to-go meals, which cannot be eaten on-site. The nonprofit does not provide bathrooms or hand-washing facilities.
Maskless recipients often camp out on sidewalks in front of businesses, they said, some openly drinking alcohol. Many leave their trash behind in doorways and planters. Much of this is documented in photos posted online at ChinatownWatch.com.
This makes it even more difficult for Chinatown businesses already struggling due to the stigma of being associated with the “China virus” during the pandemic.
“It accelerates the economic decline,” said Schlieman.
River of Life Executive Director Bob Marchant said the nonprofit is getting an unfair share of the blame.
“We’re aware of the complaints, so we try to do everything we can to mitigate them,” he said, adding that River of Life has been in the neighborhood 35 years. “Several times during the day, I send staff people around Chinatown looking to see if they’ve left any trash. We pick up trash and do that after every meal.”
Only those who are masked may receive the meals to go, he said, and the nonprofit hands out masks. During the pandemic, River of Life had to shut its bathrooms due to safety because they were indoors, in confined spaces.
The group hands out about 1,000 takeout meals a day, which is about 200 more a day than prior to the pandemic. In addition, the group gives out food boxes to the low-income and seniors twice a month.
City officials defended the improvement projects done in Chinatown, saying they have seen a marked improvement over the past six months.
“I’ve got to say Chinatown looks better than ever,” said Marc Alexander, executive director of the city’s Office of Housing. “There are fewer homeless on the streets. The ones that I observe out there are actually more ill, but there are fewer. … I see the hard work that’s being done, and I see the fruit of that.”
In addition, the city continues to work with the state to provide outreach services to the homeless.
Jeanne Ishikawa, Department of Parks and Recreation deputy director, who oversaw the power-washing of sidewalks, said they were washed and disinfected nightly on weekdays — from Nuuanu to River streets, including Hotel Street, at a cost of about $350,000. The contract was made possible with federal coronavirus aid funds.
“If you compared it now to what it was in July, it’s a thousand-degrees difference,” Ishikawa said.
The improvements can be seen at a cleaner and better-lit Kekaulike Mall, city officials said, where many homeless used to camp out and no longer do.
Many Chinatown businesses have been struggling to stay afloat due to the pandemic, which has resulted in visibly empty and boarded-up storefronts and closures. Although tourism has reopened, a small trickle make their way to Chinatown.
Cindy’s Lei and Flower Shoppe on Maunakea Street, a multigenerational business for more than 65 years, has had to cut back its hours since the pandemic started in March.
The lei shop pivoted to curbside pickup, online pre-orders and contactless delivery, but it’s been tough, especially since there have been two shutdowns.
It’s a bit like going “two steps forward, three steps back,” the family said, with numerous events involving lei having been postponed or canceled, upending predictability and presenting inventory and staffing challenges.
”I think because of all the restrictions, people can’t celebrate for all the occasions that would be going on — say, birthdays for more than five people, banquet hall dinners, anniversary events,” said grandson Nick Lee. “We’ve done funerals. Those are the ones that are still happening.”
Char Hung Sut, the popular manapua and dim sum eatery on North Pauahi Street serving Hawaii since 1945, appears to have been shuttered for most of the time. A “closed” sign remains on its door behind a locked iron gate.
Rosarina Pizza on Maunakea Street has closed its doors. Chinatown neighborhood eatery and bar Smith & Kings recently announced it would temporarily close its doors next week for renovations.
Schlieman is hoping that the new year will bring an opportunity to reboot Chinatown, with a new mayor in place as it ushers in the Year of the Ox. He still sees a neighborhood that could meet its full potential, he said, if it was cleaned up and everyone worked together.