We don’t envy Chinatown’s business owners.

When it comes to facing the unsavory realities of Honolulu’s homelessness epidemic, that area’s storefronts are on the front lines. Business owners have seen it all — loitering, mental illness and even defecation — on the sidewalks in front of their stores. No matter how compassionate or empathetic they want to be, they know one thing for sure: It’s not good for business.

This is a tough situation — one that pits practical business needs against basic compassion for people in need. As Civil Beat’s Natanya Friedheim and Noelle Fujii reported last week, several business owners are currently taking out their frustration on River of Life Mission, a nonprofit that serves free meals to the needy.

Happy Iokia lines up with others along Pauahi Street for waiting for free breakfast from River of Life. 17 Nov 2016
Happy Iokia, right, is among the people who line up for free meals from River of Life Mission. Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

River of Life serves about 15,000 meals a month, and some Chinatown business owners think the humanitarian service attracts more homeless people to the neighborhood. They also complain the lines of people waiting for meals deter potential customers. Many would like to see the mission’s effort moved elsewhere, an idea Bob Merchant, River of Life’s executive director, is open to.

While we sympathize with the business owners, we want to urge them — and those elsewhere in Honolulu, for that matter — to remember one thing: We’ve tried attacking the symptoms of homelessness before and it hasn’t worked. It’s about time we started attacking the disease.

Meet the homeless where they are. Don’t make them travel or jump through hoops for services, shelter or food.

It’s been two years since Honolulu passed the sit-lie laws. Much like Chinatown’s business owners, those laws’ supporters wanted the homeless population out of sight and out of mind. After two years, however, it’s safe to say the very visible problem of homelessness is still at the forefront of our minds.

We’ve learned that simply shuffling our homeless citizens around the island won’t make them disappear. And if any community should be sensitive to that reality, it’s Chinatown.

Chinatown, after all, is no stranger to our homeless population. As Greg Payton, executive director/CEO of Mental Health Kokua, told Civil Beat, his organization has sought a location in Chinatown for its homeless shelter since the mid-1990s because homeless people have always congregated there.

River of Life’s Merchant agreed.

“This isn’t ‘Field of Dreams,’” he said. “We didn’t build it and they came. They were here already.”

This is the fundamental reality that Chinatown — and frankly, all of Honolulu — needs to finally accept. For years now, we’ve heard the same self-serving refrain from residents and business owners alike: “Not in my backyard!” We can no longer afford to accommodate the NIMBYs.

We are a small city with a big homeless population. From Waikiki to Chinatown, they are already there. And there is nowhere else for them to go.

The problem of homelessness is so intransigent, so pervasive, that any solution to it will require buy-in from all stakeholders, including business owners.

But progress starts with one basic, nationally tested principle: Meet the homeless where they are. Don’t make them travel or jump through hoops for services, shelter or food.

Honolulu, we already know, is woefully behind on its obligations to provide affordable housing and shelter space. Until we make a concerted effort to ensure that more of our citizens have a safe place to live, we shouldn’t criminalize them for being on the street, and we most definitely shouldn’t deny them easy access to food.

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