- Special Projects
The embattled Honolulu Prosecutor’s Safe House is closing, but its problems won’t end when the doors shut at the end of August.
The real estate deal to buy the apartment complex run by the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for domestic and sexual violence victims has been enmeshed in a years-long federal corruption probe. The Safe House has also attracted the attention of the ACLU of Hawaii, after some former and current residents raised claims of civil rights violations.
And when the Makiki facility closes, seven victims and their dependents who currently live there, some of whom don’t have anywhere else to go, will be forced out. The staff who work there will also have to find other jobs.
The reason for shutting down the Safe House, according to the prosecutor’s office, is that the City Council has slashed its funding in half for the new fiscal year over budget concerns.
City Councilman Joey Manahan, who heads the budget committee, said a lot of money is going into a program that he isn’t sure is working. “I found it very hard to be able to justify the program from a financial standpoint,” he said.
The Safe House was a crowning achievement of Keith Kaneshiro, the Honolulu prosecutor who is on paid leave after receiving a target letter in the federal investigation into the abuse of power within Hawaii law enforcement. He is also the subject of impeachment proceedings in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court.
The facility opened in September 2016 with a ceremony where Kaneshiro and his top political donor, who sold the apartment complex to the city, were praised for their work on the project.
Since its opening, the Safe House has housed more than 40 victims of domestic or sexual abuse over the course of three years, resulting in 14 convictions thus far with six more cases awaiting trial, according to top officials at the prosecutor’s office, including acting prosecuting attorney Dwight Nadamoto.
The mission of the Safe House was to provide safety to victims so that they would become more effective witnesses against their abusers in court, as witnesses recant a lot in domestic violence or sexual assault cases, in part because of fear of retaliation from their abusers.
In an interview with Civil Beat, Nadamoto, Acting First Deputy Prosecutor Lynn Costales and Executive Assistant Carol Nakamura said they have made numerous efforts to convince the City Council not to cut the funding. But they weren’t successful, and now the residents must seek other arrangements.
“It is very unfortunate that we weren’t able to keep it going, because it did make a difference to a lot of them,” Costales said.
The facility’s operations will officially shut down at the end of August, with staff members being paid through then. In the meantime, they are also working to help current residents find other options, Nadamoto said.
“I think it was a great idea,” he said. “Unfortunately, we may have been the first people to do this kind of thing, so it’s a 100% learning curve.”
Operating expenses in fiscal year 2018 were about $450,000 for 21 units, covering everything from staff salaries to grocery allowances for residents.
The biggest chunk of the budget was security, which accounted for about $174,000, or about 38%, according to expense records shared with Civil Beat.
On June 5, the council voted to reduce the operating budget by about $130,000 and to cap the total expenses it can spend in a year at about $274,000.
Councilman Manahan said the amount of money being spent to keep the Safe House open was not proportionate to a facility with only a handful of residents living there at times.
The Safe House had 10 residents living there in 2019, 14 in the previous year and 13 in 2017, according to Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
The reduction in funding for security is what is effectively shutting down the Safe House, Nadamoto said.
The Safe House provides 24-hour security for the residents, he said, and without it, “it wouldn’t be Safe House.”
Manahan argued that the prosecutor’s office could still keep the the complex open by using its own carryover funding, which he said totals about $700,000.
But Nadamoto said the City Council has tied his hands by capping the entire budget at $274,000, which he said isn’t enough to provide the necessary security.
Three weeks after the decision to close the Safe House was announced, the prosecutor’s office received a letter from the ACLU of Hawaii regarding allegations from some former and current residents claiming their civil rights were violated.
The ACLU of Hawaii has received “credible information about mismanagement, abuse and constitutional violations” at the Safe House, the letter said.
Instances included warrantless searches of residents’ apartments and drug testing, and arbitrary restrictions on residents’ ability to leave the facility or communicate with people on the outside, the letter said.
It also alleged that the Safe House terminated residents without due process and retaliated against them for reporting abuse.
These allegations are corroborated by “multiple, independent and consistent accounts of current and former residents,” as well as documents, including resident agreements and electronic communications with Safe House staff, the letter said.
One of the residents reached out to Civil Beat, saying in an email that women came to the Safe House seeking protection from their abusers, but what they found was that “this was a lateral move from one abuser to the next.
“Only, HPSH abused us under the guise of public trust,” she said.
Civil Beat is not identifying her, or other Safe House residents quoted in this story, because they are victims of domestic or sexual violence.
Officials at the prosecutor’s office declined to comment on specific allegations, but said living at the Safe House is voluntary and residents can choose to leave if they find its rules too stringent.
In its three years of operation, five Safe House residents have been involuntarily terminated, one of whom still resides there with a month’s notice to vacate, Baehr, the prosecutor’s spokesman said.
“We have rules at the safe house,” said Nadamoto, the acting prosecuting attorney. “It’s meant to keep everybody safe and the rules need to be followed.”
Some of those rules include being required to have someone accompany the residents when they leave the premises, notifying staff members of people outside of the Safe House who may be dropping them off there and being subject to drug and alcohol testing.
The residents are given multiple strikes before their stay at the Safe House is terminated for violating the rules, said Costales, the acting first deputy prosecutor. She added that residents also have to sign an agreement when they move in.
Costales said she recognizes that different victims may face different levels of risk, but rules cannot necessarily be tailored for each person, even though some residents may find them “cumbersome.”
“When we step back and look at the concept of the Safe House, which is to keep those residents safe from their abusers and their offenders, the rules are built to achieve that purpose — to keep them safe from their offenders and abusers,” she said.
The officials also denied that anyone was evicted as retaliation for speaking to the media.
The day after the City Council voted to slash funding, staff members from the prosecutor’s office went to the Safe House to tell the residents it was closing, said Costales.
“It was sad for us to have to tell them that we can’t keep them safe anymore,” Costales said.
One resident wrote them a letter expressing gratitude, Costales said. That resident told Civil Beat in an interview that Safe House helped her ease back into society after years of living on the streets and recover from a sexual assault.
“It’s been my safe haven,” said the woman, who was assaulted earlier this year. “They helped me. This place is unbelievable.”
That person, who lived at a west side beach park prior to the Safe House, said she may end up on the streets again when it shuts down at the end of August.
The woman said she has been actively searching for another place to stay, but is running out of options, even with staff members’ help. She doesn’t qualify for domestic violence shelters because she is a sexual assault victim and there are no housing programs that specifically help those victims. She’s also on a wait list for public housing.
“So I go back to the beach while I wait,” she said.
When the woman first moved in, she said that she, too, had felt restricted and that some of the rules didn’t make sense. But over time, she said she realized the rules were for her own protection.
“I’m grateful, very grateful that there is a place like this for me to be at,” she said.
Last week, a federal corruption investigation resulted in convictions of former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine Kealoha, a former city prosecutor, along with two police officers who conspired with them.
As part of the broader investigation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wheat and his team have taken a particular interest in the city’s purchase of the Safe House.
Donna Walden, a top campaign contributor of elected prosecutor Kaneshiro, sold the apartment complex in the Makiki neighborhood to the city for the Safe House. She and her fellow investors made a $1 million profit from the sale.
Among the witnesses connected to the Safe House who were questioned during grand jury proceeding were Pamela Tamashiro, former Safe House director; Wendy Imamura, the city’s purchasing administrator; and Wesley Nakamura, president of Okada Trucking, the company that sold the property to Walden in 2013.
Nadamoto, Costales and Nakamura all said during the interview with Civil Beat that they had no idea why the Safe House would be investigated.
“We’re curious about that too,” Nakamura, the executive assistant, said.
The federal grand jury has not issued any indictments related to the Safe House.
Civil Beat reporters Nick Grube and Christina Jedra contributed to this report.
While asking for your support is something we don’t like to do, the simple fact is that our reporters, our journalism, and our impact rely on it. Since lifting our paywall and becoming a nonprofit in mid-2016, our local newsroom has benefitted from a stream of charitable support from people who want our type of journalism to survive. People like you who understand that our work is essential to a better-informed community. If you value the work of our journalists, show us with your tax-deductible support.