Residents of Pauahi Hale, a low-income high-rise in downtown Chinatown, will be getting new neighbors in the coming months.

The city plans to use a substantial portion of the building to house homeless people struggling with mental illness and alcohol and drug abuse.

So far, the plan seems to be attracting cautious support from the Chinatown business community and advocates for the building’s residents, who hope that it will help alleviate a growing homeless problem partially concentrated in downtown Honolulu.

But it’s not clear how many of the current residents of Pauahi Hale are aware of the plans. Greg Payton, executive director of Mental Health Kokua, a nonprofit mental health agency that will manage the building, said he plans to meet with them this week.

City managing director Ember Shinn announced the conversion last week during a City Council hearing. Since then, city officials and Payton have revealed more details.

Homeless man in Chinatown

A homeless man in Chinatown in 2013.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

During a two-year pilot project, Mental Health Kokua plans to move its Safe Haven shelter into the building at 155 North Beretania St., said Payton.

Of the 77 units in Pauahi Hale, 25 are expected to house Safe Haven clients currently in treatment for mental illness. The lease for Safe Haven’s current site, also in downtown Honolulu, is expiring. The move is expected to take about six months.

Some 20 additional units are expected to accommodate “Housing First” clients, according to Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for Mayor Kirk Caldwell. The Housing First population tends to include chronically homeless people living on the streets who suffer from both mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse.

But Payton said some of those 20 units may be used to house Safe Haven offices instead.

The city’s latest effort to address the problem entails getting this portion of the homeless off the streets and into housing before they deal with issues of addiction.

The initial incentive, for some incoming residents, is that they won’t be subject to the strict rules of shelters, such as prohibitions on drinking or requirements that they be drug-free when they move in.

Some Will be Allowed to Drink; Some Won’t

Payton stressed that no current residents will be kicked out of Pauahi Hale to make room for the homeless.

Historical data indicates that 30 tenants are long-term residents who will be permitted to stay, while the rest of the units provide housing for transient or month-to-month renters, he said.

Those units will be filled by homeless clients as they become available through attrition.

The population mix could be a sensitive one, comprised of low-income tenants — some of whom were formerly homeless and generally have stable lives; mentally ill homeless who are well into treatment and often on medication; and Housing First clients, who likely will be entering the building without any current treatment program.

“That needs to be looked at and fleshed out with the community,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of Chinatown Business and Community Association

While the Safe Haven clients are prohibited from drinking alcohol, Housing First residents won’t have such restrictions, said Payton — though ideally Housing First clients will abstain as they move through intensive treatment programs provided on site.

“What usually happens with the people we serve, is that the homeless are trying to medicate their symptoms,” he said. “So we don’t want them to be using alcohol because it is contraindicative of their medicines and usually when they are stabilized on medications, they don’t want to use (drugs or alcohol).”

Payton said he didn’t think it would be a problem mixing the Safe Haven clients with the Housing First clients, who will also be offered intensive treatment services.

“The whole program is about trying to normalize health,” he said. “And they (Safe Haven clients) are going to be around people who drink and they are going to have to see that they can not.”

Mental Health Kokua also plans to provide 24-hour security and public restroom facilities in the building, responding to ongoing community concerns that the homeless are relieving themselves on the streets because of a lack of facilities.

“Urine and feces are everywhere,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of Chinatown Business and Community Association. “It’s horrible.”

Signs of Early Support

Shubert-Kwock said she supported the city’s plan, noting that the homeless problem in downtown Oahu has gotten worse over the years.

“Because the problems are so deep and big, it’s a glimmer of hope that they are doing something and I am supportive of them,” she said, though she noted she may be in the minority.

Shubert-Kwock did express concern about so many homeless people who are mentally ill and struggling with alcohol and drug use being housed in a single location.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s administration has said in the past that the intent for Housing First was to spread clients out in buildings throughout the city to avoid concentrations of dysfunction.

“That needs to be looked at and fleshed out with the community,” said Shubert-Kwock. “It’s obviously a concern, but we want to have a calculated back-up system where they can assure the community that it is going to be reasonably safe.”

Bob Nakata, a leader of Faith Action for Community Equity who has been advocating on behalf of residents of Pauahi Hale and other public housing sites, said he supports the idea so far, but cautioned that there needs to be better communication with current tenants.

“I think there needs to be more discussion,” he said. “I think I’m supportive of the basic concepts, but there needs to be more transparency on the administration’s side.”

Nakata said that it was a good first step to solving entrenched problems that grew out of the national move to downsize mental health institutions and cut off funding for building public housing.

“As long as we don’t address those, we limp along with highly inadequate programs and solutions for the homeless,” he said.

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