Transitioning 25 mentally ill, chronically homeless adults to a new setting is no easy task.

It’s been three years since the city announced that Safe Haven shelter, run by the nonprofit Mental Health Kokua, will move from Fort Street Mall to a low-income housing complex in Chinatown. 

Without a renewed lease, the shelter must vacate its Fort Street Mall location by the end of September.

The new location, Pauahi Hale, is just four blocks down the street from Safe Haven’s current Fort Street Mall location, but the transition has presented Safe Haven staff and the 25 mentally ill, chronically homeless people they serve with a range of challenges.

Moving is stressful for people without mental illness, but “for our guys it magnifies 100 percent,” said Ema Bell, a housing coordinator at the shelter. Safe Haven staff has taken measures to psychologically prepare the shelter’s mentally ill clients for the move.

Pauahi Hale on Pauahi and Maunakea streets in Chinatown near River Street. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The challenges run the gamut from unexpected construction costs at the start of the move to a last-minute shortage of packing tape. The shelter must vacate its current location by the end of September.

Now, in the final weeks of the move, the nonprofit’s employees are still cleaning and furnishing Pauahi Hale’s vacant rooms, and soliciting new mattresses from anyone willing to donate one. 

The transitional residential shelter offers rooms to adults for months and sometimes years as case managers help their chronically homeless clients find medical help and permanent housing.

Taking over management of Pauahi Hale, a city-owed housing complex, presented its own set of difficulties.

Pauahi Hale was a “wild building” before the nonprofit took it over in 2015, said Bill Hanrahan, Safe Haven project director and property manager at Pauahi Hale. 

Bell said the new location in the heart of Chinatown near Maunakea Marketplace is a “den of target clients.”

The shelter’s new presence across the street from River of Life Mission’s soup kitchen will help with outreach efforts, she said, because Safe Haven staff will be closer to prospective clients who they can build relationships with.  

“It can be difficult to get people with mental illness to come to the shelter,” Bell said.

Ema Bell has worked at Safe Haven for four years and is helping residents prepare for the move. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Chinatown’s small businesses have long bemoaned operating in an area with lots of mentally ill people living on the streets. Some were unhappy about the Safe Haven move.

Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who represents Chinatown, said the neighboring community of Iwilei is a more appropriate location for the shelter.

“What we support in the longer term is relocating this program to the Iwilei area,” she said. “We originally envisioned Pauahi Hale being something short term.”

Iwilei’s warehouses don’t see as much foot traffic as Chinatown, and the industrial neighborhood is already home to the Institute for Human Services, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

The city doesn’t yet have plans to relocate the facility again, Fukunaga said. For now Mental Health Kokua is focused on adjusting to its new location and its new role managing the low-income housing complex.

‘Shaken By The Thought Of The Move’

Safe Haven staff chose to move clients in small groups. Fourteen clients have already made a smooth transition, but the remaining clients may have a tougher time.

“For some of our clients it’s starting to become a bigger challenge,” Bell said.

Changing an established routine can be more jarring for people with mental illness, she added. 

Mental Health Kokua plans to make this outdoor area in Pauahi Hale into a new common area, but it’s less than half the size of the current common area. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

To ease anxieties, one Safe Haven employee started taking clients on field trips four blocks down the street to tour their new home. Some clients have taken the tour three times already.

“At first I was a little shaken by the thought of the move,” said Joseph, a resident at Safe Haven who asked that his last name not be used in this story. Joseph spent a year on the streets before moving to Safe Haven about in March 2016.

“I think everything’ll be ok,” he says now.

Bedrooms at Pauahi Hale are more spacious, but the shelter’s staff and clients will have to adjust to a communal space less than half the size of their current common area. The space will host Safe Haven’s free meals and communal activities.

On any given day, about 30 people will filter into Safe Haven’s shared space to watch TV, eat meals or take free classes ranging from knitting to managing credit.

Bell said she wishes the shelter could expand to house more people.

Safe Haven moved its first two clients into Pauahi Hale in early August. Within days, one of the vacated rooms was already filled when the shelter took in a homeless man who’d been hit by a car, hastily patched up in an emergency room, then sent back to the streets.

To explain the large numbers of mentally ill homeless people, Greg Payton, the director of Mental Health Kokua pointed to deinstitutionalization in the 1960s, when patients discharged from psychiatric hospital across the country were met with underfunded community mental health services.  

One room in Safe Haven’s Fort Street location serves as an intake center and storage room. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“The problem is when people are deinstitutionalized, having enough community services, which could be housing, case management, psychiatry,” Payton said. “That’s why you see so many homeless in Hawaii, because there’s a lack of community services.”

Safe Haven is short staffed, and always looking for volunteers to help serve three meals each day or teach workshops.

In her four years working at Safe Haven, Bell has seen the need for social workers greatly outweigh the supply.

“There’s not really a lot of us doing this type of work and the ones that are are really busting their butts,” she said.

‘We’re Not A Slum Landlord’

 Payton said when Mental Health Kokua took over management of Pauahi Hale almost two and a half years ago, he found a building where the roof leaked and drug dealers abound.

“It’s 100 percent better than when we walked in,” he said.

Thirty-two long-term low-income tenants remain living in the 77-unit high rise, most of them are below 20 percent AMI and pay about $300 or less per month for the single-room-occupancy housing, Hanrahan said.

Boxes piled in a Safe Haven room will be filled prior to the move. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

After mismanaging federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city agreed to put $930,000 into renovating the Pauahi Hale in 2014.

Safe Haven secured another $150,000 from the The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and HomeAid Hawaii volunteered resources for much needed renovations.

Still, even with the renovations complete, Fukunaga said the high rise is “deteriorating.”

Taking over the complex was a learning experience for Hanrahan, who had not run a low-income housing complex.

He said he was struck by “how physically ill really poor people are.”

Many Pauahi Hale tenants have mental and physical disabilities. Mental Health Kokua isn’t contracted to provide case management to those tenants, but they’ve had practicum students from University of Hawaii or Hawaii Pacific University work with tenants.

Some rooms in Pauahi Hale still need to be scrubbed and get furniture. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hanrahan said tenants have been surprisingly accepting of the idea of Save Haven moving in.

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I think really poor people are more sophisticated about mental illness than middle class people because they live around mentally ill people,” he said. “So a lot of those long term tenants have been really understanding.”




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