Every morning, Sam Say is out in front of his lei shop on Maunakea Street with a long-handled brush and a bucket of Lysol to scrub the urine off the pavement.
“It smells so terrible. It scares away my customers, “ exclaimed Say, the owner of M.P. Lei Shop.
Say said the Chinatown homeless also urinate and defecate in the parking lot next door to his shop where he goes almost every day to pile mounds of kitty litter on top of the feces, only to have the homeless return and defecate again on top of the mounds of kitty litter.
Say doesn’t know if the city’s new sit-lie ordinance will change much because the law prohibits people from sitting and lying on the streets only from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. The prohibition does not extend to the pre-dawn hours when he says many of the homeless urinate and defecate out in public.
Say is not alone in his frustration. Dozens of other merchants live with the smell and filth left behind by mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless sleepers who use Chinatown storefronts as bathrooms.
The problem is that there are no public bathrooms in Chinatown, except for a single stall in the Honolulu Police Department’s Chinatown Substation, which frequently has to be closed down for a few days after users jam the toilet with trash.
Private businesses say they have had to stop letting anyone but their most trusted customers use the bathrooms on their premises.
Victor Lim, the owner and operator of the Fort Street Mall McDonald’s, closed the restaurant’s public bathroom 20 years ago because of non-stop vandalism by vagrant bathroom users.
“You could never imagine the kinds of things they threw in the toilets,” sais Lim, “everything from Coke cans, to hypodermic needles to feces-filled underwear. “
One of Lim’s employees put it this way: “ They mutilated the bathroom.”
“It was impossible to keep clean,” said Lim.
But some help will be coming next month when Mental Health Kokua expects to open what will be the first public bathroom and shower facility in Chinatown.
Greg Payton, executive director of Mental Health Kokua, says the new sanitary facility for men and women will be in a city-owned, low-income housing project known as Pauahi Hale at 126 N. Pauahi St. That’s where Mental Health Kokua expects to open its Safe Haven Shelter in June.
Safe Haven is MHK’s program to help severely mentally ill and drug-addicted homeless people ease their way back into society.
Payton said MHK wanted to give something important back to the Chinatown businesses and residents who have been very supportive of its plans to set up a homeless shelter in the community.
“Public urination and defecation are big problems for Chinatown,” said Payton.“ Some merchants have to power-wash the sidewalks every morning. Putting in public toilets is a small gesture but it addresses a big issue.”
Payton says the intention is to eventually have the sanitary facility opened 24/7 but at first it will be open only 12 hours a day.
The facility will be supervised when it is open to prevent vandalism and illegal activities such as drug dealing and prostitution in the bathroom stalls.
Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, said vandalism and illegal activities have been an ongoing problem in the Police Department’s sporadically open Chinatown restroom.
“Despite its location in the police station, the toilet is regularly vandalized, clogged and trashed,” said Van Dyke.
“Individuals sometimes lock themselves inside for long periods of time to do illegal activities inside, even though it’s in the police station. So it is a big challenge. An unsupervised public restroom would be unlikely to remain open very long.”
MHK will pay a small stipend to a few of its homeless clients who have gone through job training to clean and supervise the hygiene center, initially from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. daily.
Chinatown resident Lynne Matusow worries that even with supervision the public bathrooms will be wrecked.
“If the bathrooms get trashed, Mental Health Kokua will have to close them down because it costs a lot of money to repair vandalism,” Matusow said.
But Payton said the toilets, showers and sinks they are installing are “extremely durable, difficult to vandalize.”
The facilities will be primarily for the homeless of Chinatown who are in greatest need of public bathrooms.
The plan does not address the needs of regular Chinatown visitors, who have complained for years about the lack of public bathrooms.
Carol Fukunaga, the Honolulu City Council member for the Chinatown area, said when the Chinatown restaurant owners see the homeless people’s bathroom needs being taken care of by Mental Health Kokua they might begin to open their restaurant bathrooms once again to members of the general public.
Payton said the new hygiene facility is not going to solve all of Chinatown’s bathroom needs.
“But we have to address the current crisis first. This is a first step in a long journey.”