A nonprofit group focused on helping homeless people had $2.6 million in federal funds to spend on a triage facility to provide assistance last year as the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the economy.

But the Institute for Human Services was pushed out of nearly every neighborhood it chose as a site for the building, ultimately forcing it to abandon the plans and give up the money.

“We certainly didn’t feel like we had community support,” said Connie Mitchell, executive director of IHS.

The goal was to provide a space where homeless people could shower and rest as well as a transitional housing program for people who found themselves on the brink of homelessness because they needed help paying rent or coming up with a deposit.

“When you’re on the streets, you can’t get a good night’s rest,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to really provide that space. When people are without sleep, they haven’t been eating or they’re really stressed out because they don’t know what’s going to happen next, they can’t be making good decisions to begin with. This would stabilize people by bringing them to that place.”

Mitchell said residents in Waikiki were receptive to the idea, but by then it was too late. The deadline to spend the CARES Act money was in December.

“People always have questions, but they were at least willing to give it a shot,” Mitchell said. “Because the building wasn’t ready for us, we decided to not do it.”

The dilemma illustrates the social tensions that are a side effect of the growing need for affordable housing and services for unsheltered people due to Hawaii’s high cost of living and low minimum wage. 

Local Opposition

Chinatown has seen an increase in the number of homeless people on the streets and seemed the perfect place to open a Homeless Triage and CARES Center, as the planned facility was known.

But the group found itself in the middle of growing anger by local residents and merchants who say they have increasingly had to clean up human feces from the sidewalks and scrape graffiti from the walls, among other problems.

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, founder and president of the Chinatown Business and Community Association, said the residents are tired of having services “dumped” in their neighborhood.

“If you like them so much, put them in your backyard,” she said. “Not ours. You can call it NIMBY or whatever, but no one has suffered as much as Chinatown.”

“Why don’t they go to Kahala for a change?” she continued. “Why pick Chinatown and Kalihi? Because this is a poor, working class, immigrant neighborhood that they can bully.”

Sen. Karl Rhoads speaks at a press conference to oppose the use of a building at 65 N. Beretania St. by a group offering services for homeless people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

According to Chinatown Neighborhood Board minutes from last March, residents expressed concerns of a potential COVID-19 outbreak that would “be made worse by the homeless population living on the streets without sanitation.”

Last year, a survey disclosed that about 98 Chinatown business owners said homelessness in the neighborhood impaired their businesses. Out of 132 customers surveyed, 83% said it negatively impacted their decision on the shopping area, and 93% said the homeless situation hasn’t improved.

Honolulu City Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga, who represents the district, also opposed the project.

Fukunaga mentioned issues with homeless congregating outside of businesses when the River of Life Mission began serving free meals outside, leading to large groups on the street.

“So for Chinatown businesses as well as residents, that condition has turned into a major public sanitation problem,” she said.

After immense opposition from Chinatown residents, including a press conference that drew neighborhood representatives, IHS aborted plans to use a building at 65 N. Beretania St.

65 North Beretania Street.
The Institute for Human Services had to abandon plans to use this building at 65 N. Beretania St. for a Homeless Triage and CARES Center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Next, IHS looked into Kalihi – a pink, two-story building at the corner of North King Street and Long Lane.

But many Kalihi residents also were disgruntled that IHS picked that location, despite an attempt at local outreach by IHS to rally support for their services.

Janice Onishi, one of the owners of the Terada Apartments, which is across the street from the proposed homeless triage and transfer station, opposed the move. At a neighborhood board meeting last July, she said there was minimal public notice and voiced safety concerns.

No Political Will

Former council member Joey Manahan, who represented Kalihi, initially supported the project but retracted his support after complaints from residents.

“Kalihi site is no longer being considered for IHS triage. I’ve withdrawn my support for it same reasons as Chinatown. CARES $ can’t be spent outside of Chinatown #cchnl,” he tweeted in August.

Connie Mitchell is the executive director of the Institute for Human Services. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

For Kalihi residents to make their stance clear, at least 20 people picketed outside of the building and signed petitions to get IHS to nix the location. And they did.

IHS wasn’t the only one to be run out of a neighborhood last year. An affordable housing project proposed in Kailua also faced immense opposition from residents. 

A day before it was set to be voted on by the Honolulu City Council, Makani Maeva, president and CEO of Ahe Group, withdrew the developer’s application for the construction of the 50-foot, 73-unit building slated for 460 Kawainui St. at the corner of Oneawa Street. 

Maeva said she was disappointed that the project was scrapped and said Kailua residents had false information about the project, calling it a homeless shelter. 

“We spent a lot of time and money on the project,” she said. “There just simply wasn’t the political will.”

Danny Casler, who runs the Facebook and Instagram page called “My Kailua,” said “the affordable housing project was done in a way that was not in a manner which the community felt was pono (necessary).”

“Multiple people have gone on the record to say they spoke with the group and the feeling was that our voices never mattered from the start,” he said.

According to the Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting minutes from last July, several hundred residents testified in opposition to the project, citing concerns about zoning issues, blockage of solar panels, environmental impacts, negative effects of bird flight patterns, and impacts on traffic and parking.

Faith Action on Community Equity held virtual meetings to try to educate and connect with the community about the affordable housing project.

But Foo Pham, who chairs the HousingNOW! task force, which is a part of Faith Action on Community Equity, said their meetings were disrupted by ZOOM-bombers who opposed the project. 

“One of the criticisms is that the developer didn’t talk to the neighborhood board soon enough,” Pham said. “Many people would say things like, ‘I support affordable housing, just not in my backyard.’ It poses the question, ‘So where do you want it?’”

Building for sale on the corner of North King Street and Long Lane.
This building for sale on the corner of North King Street and Long Lane was the IHS’ second choice for a homeless triage center. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

‘Not In My Backyard’

Michael Hankinson, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University, said the phenomenon of NIMBYism, or not in my backyard, is also a political problem as local governance has become decentralized.

“From my research looking at California, there’s this big wave of city councils moving from at-large to district elections, and people go from being elected citywide to being elected by a specific district like a large neighborhood.”

His research revealed that homeowners and renters in high-rent cities – such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles – support the idea of affordable housing in general but oppose it in their neighborhoods. 

“What I’m saying is that you can keep the neighborhood control, but there has to be something on top saying you have to figure this out,” he said. “Because if there’s too much neighborhood control, nothing gets built. Housing services don’t get built, drug addiction treatment clinics don’t get built and affordable apartments don’t get built.” 

What is Fault Lines?
“Fault Lines” is a special project that continues to explore disruption and discord in Hawaii, especially as we emerge from a pandemic that exposed new points of contention, and what we as a community can do to bridge some of the social and political gaps that are developing. Read more here.

NIMBYism is not only subject to homeowners who fear a decrease in their property values but also raises questions of racism and classism, according to Laurel Mei-Singh, assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawaii.

“That’s rooted in racist and classist assumptions that the neighbors who will make a place the safest are the ones who have the most economic class privilege without seeing our shared investment in each other’s well-being,” she said. “These economic logics tied to abandonment cause people people to turn against each other.”

She also said the government’s failure to provide adequate housing programs and social services for the people who are struggling the most is reflected in overall local attitudes.

“As we see the abandonment of the poor, it corresponds with the expansion of policing rather than services. So that’s expanded to our broader societal mentality that the poor should be punished rather than served,” she said.

Growing Need

Steven Gessow, a single father with three daughters, is awaiting a 45-day notice to leave his two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Honolulu, where he has lived for four years.

Recently his apartment was sold to a new property owner and was due to undergo renovations. At first he thought his rent would increase by $50 or $100 per month. However, his rent will rise from $1,275 to $1,900. 

Gov. David Ige suspended evictions in Hawaii for the past year due to the pandemic, but landlords have still been allowed to ask residents to leave if they’re selling their properties.

Steven Gessow is waiting for his 45-day notice to leave his 2-bedroom apartment in Kalihi. He worries about finding an affordable place to provide for his three daughters. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2021

Gessow’s landlord provided advance notice but no specific date.

Gessow said his biggest fear is not finding a new affordable place before he and his family have to move out since such dwellings are usually snapped up quickly.

“It’s not that I’m scared of being on the streets or that I’m picky, but I don’t want to be in a dumpy place,” Gessow said, insisting that he’s always paid his rent on time. “Coming up with the rent is no issue; it’s coming up with the deposit that’s an issue.”

Maeva said the market for low-income housing is in high demand.

“It’s a race to apply,” she said. “We leased up our Queen Emma Building. We had thousands of people applying for 71 units by the end of the (last) year.”

Paul Anaral has been homeless in Chinatown for 30 years. Cassie Ordonio/Civil Beat/2021

Paul Anaral has been homeless for 30 years. His roaming spots are between Chinatown and downtown Honolulu.

He carries a bag of bagels, a box of noodles and an open can of Pepsi.

A homeless woman walks toward him wearing only a white shirt then points at his box of noodles. Without hesitation, Anaral gives her his food and soda.

“Some days are good, and some days are bad,” he said.

The 68-year-old has seen many people mistreat those experiencing homelessness, although they usually just ignore him or shoo him away.

He also understands why residents are frustrated.

“There are drugs around here, and (the dealers) really don’t care,” he said. “They’ll shoot up at any place, and they’ll leave their crap around. I can see why they’re upset.”

Walking through the streets of Chinatown, Anaral points to fresh feces on the sidewalk and spikes on the concrete to keep those experiencing homelessness from sleeping in a specific location.

His advice to people who have negative views on homeless people: “If you have a  family member that was over here, would you treat them the same way you treat other people?”

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