Four months into the administration of Mayor Rick Blangiardi and hopes are dimming that any meaningful and quick change is coming to Chinatown to reduce homelessness in Honolulu’s oldest neighborhood.
The situation has gotten worse after Honolulu’s original hygiene center, which offered homeless people use of two private showers and toilets on North Pauahi Street, had to close due to COVID-19 concerns in the early days of the pandemic.
“You have to watch where you step because of the doo-doo,” said Noi Soulatha, who owns Hong Fa Market on Maunakea Street with her husband, Deth.
“Makes me sick,” Soulatha said. “Feel shame.”
Elizabeth Temple, owner of Riverside Barber Shop, starts each workday hosing down human feces and urine in front of the business that she’s run for 31 years on River Street.
“They urinate, they leave their drug stuff,” Temple told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser as she cut the hair of one of her loyal customers, Keiki Tsuchida, 85, of Kaneohe, behind a locked glass door.
“I call Blangiardi and tell him, ‘It’s worse,’” Temple said. “It’s getting worse. Some of my customers scared to come.”
Blangiardi’s communications team did not immediately reply to multiple requests for comment. They and the Honolulu Police Department also did not respond to requests for the number of homeless-related citations that have been issued islandwide, in city parks, downtown, Chinatown and in Kakaako from 2019 — before Blangiardi ran for office — through the first quarter of Blangiardi’s administration.
Blangiardi and/or his representative are scheduled to speak before the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board at 1 Aloha Tower Drive on Thursday. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.
Even before he took office, Blangiardi’s most significant position on homelessness has been to abandon former Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s “compassionate disruption” approach that involved sweeps of homeless encampments while offering the occupants social service help and at least temporary housing in homeless shelters, which have had to reduce bed space due to COVID-19.
Anton Krucky, executive director of the city Office of Housing, told the Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii online video program in April that sweeps are an unsuccessful approach to reducing homelessness.
Krucky said that the city is planning a new “Crisis Outreach Response and Engagement” — or CORE — approach that will run 24/7 starting this summer to dispatch teams of social workers and medical and mental health specialists to homeless calls, instead of relying on Honolulu police.
Area Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga told the Star-Advertiser on Tuesday that she believes Blangiardi wants to take a different approach to getting homeless people long-term help, treatment for mental illness and permanent housing.
The result, Fukunaga believes, will mean “actual removal of people from public spaces.”
“People are very hopeful,” Fukunaga said. “I’m hopeful.”
For now, “we’re not seeing the sweeps,” said Eric Wong, who helps organize a walking patrol of Chinatown residents.
Yvonne Christie, 64, has been homeless for 19 years and said police officers seem more tolerant in Chinatown.
“They don’t mess with anybody, really,” Christie said. “Everybody’s more conscious about picking up their trash. So that’s a plus.”
Moments later a woman walked down North Hotel Street yelling and was pursued by a man who threw an open plastic bottle of water in her direction, spraying the sidewalk. At another point a shirtless man pushing a shopping cart yelled profanities and threatened a Star-Advertiser reporter while saying that a bank had swindled him out of more than $320,000.
What’s clear is that homelessness in Chinatown remains a major issue for merchants as business has picked up for some. Other businesses have closed, leaving behind shuttered storefronts boarded up with sheets of plywood full of graffiti.
Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, a Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board member and a founder of the Chinatown Business &Community Association, estimated that 30% of Chinatown’s more than 100 street-level merchants and restaurants have given up and gone out of business in the era of COVID-19.
And with fewer beds available in nearby shelters because of COVID-19 distancing, Shubert-Kwock believes more homeless are in Chinatown each day and sleeping in shuttered doorways at night.
With fewer places to stay, Shubert-Kwock asked, “Where do you think they go?”
Katrina Long, co-owner of Fred’s Sundries on North Hotel Street, was blunt about the situation:
“More homeless,” she said.
Carlos Hernandez-Rodrigues has been working private security in Chinatown since 2019 and is now head of security for Maunakea Marketplace.
“There’s drugs, there’s stabbings,’ Hernandez-Rodrigues said.
On Monday he told a shirtless man without a mask that he could not enter Maunakea Marketplace, and was threatened with a knife.
Hernandez-Rodrigues used a piece of fencing to knock the knife away.
“Nothing’s changed,” Hernandez-Rodrigues said.
At River and North Hotel streets, the windows of Cuu Long II restaurant have been “broken a bunch of times since COVID,” or five times, said manager Joey Nguyen.
Insurance pays the $4,000 replacement costs, but the restaurant still has to come up with a $500 deductible each time, Nguyen said.
Since Blangiardi’s administration took over responsibility for the city’s homeless situation, Nguyen said, “Nah, I don’t see anything. No improvement, and it gets a bit worse at night time.”
But Sam Say, whose wife, Mimi, owns M.P. Lei Shop on Maunakea Street, was adamant about the state of homelessness in Chinatown.
“It is getting worse,” Say said. “It’s getting worse.”