Denby Fawcett: Chinatown Needs More Than Government Lip Service To Solve Its Problems - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

When Rick Blangiardi became Honolulu mayor almost a year ago, he promised to turn Chinatown into a safe and livable place, calling it “a hidden gem with so much potential that has been neglected.”

Opinion article badge

But business owners on Maunakea Street — in a lively email exchange last week with managing director Mike Formby and other city officials — said if anything the crime and filth in their area is worse, with increasing amounts of excrement and urine on the sidewalks and open drug-dealing and lewdness.

Chinatown business owners Oren Schlieman and Fran Butera started the email exchange Wednesday when they sent the city officials, Honolulu Police Department and the Prosecuting Attorney’s office videos of a half-naked homeless man masturbating in front of Yong’s Kitchen restaurant and a topless woman nearby waving her breasts as she laughed and shouted obscenities at passersby.

Schlieman says that although the city has addressed problems with homelessness on River Street and Aala Park, the homeless people from those areas have all moved over to Smith-Beretania Park and onto the sidewalks of Maunakea Street.

“The honest businesses can barely hang on. Yours is the administration that cares about Chinatown. Why can’t you break the cycle?” wrote Butera in one of the emails to city officials.

Oren Schlieman stands near the entrance to the Smith Beretania Parking with a person sleeping nearby.
Oren Schlieman, a Chinatown businessman, said in response to a city initiative, homeless people have simply moved to a different part of the neighborhood. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

HPD’s acting major for the area, Calvin Sung, responded quickly to the email and sent out officers that evening to check on homeless individuals on Maunakea Street.

But by far the most direct and encouraging reply to Chinatown advocates in the email chain came from Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm.

Alm in July started a “Weed and Seed” program to “weed” by arresting criminals in Chinatown and “seed” by creating initiatives to help steer youth in the area away from lives of crime.

He said that in the last five months of the Weed and Seed project in Chinatown, HPD has arrested and the prosecutor’s office is prosecuting 107 defendants for felony charges. The vast majority of those arrests are for drug possession. Of the 107 charged, 91 were homeless and unable to post bail.

Alm said his office has come up with a new approach to stop the revolving door of homeless addicts getting arrested and either going to prison or being released back onto the streets again to resume their self-destructive behaviors.

Graffiti keeps reappearing on Chinatown storefronts no matter how many times businesses try to eradicate it. Courtesy: Oren Schlieman/2021

Working with other state and city agencies and health providers, the prosecutor’s goal now is to keep non-violent homeless defendants out of prison and instead rapidly steer them into residential substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

“Defendants, in this new initiative called SUDA-Fast (Substance Use Disorder Assessment-Fast), will, on an expedited basis be assessed at OCCC (the Oahu Community Correctional Center) and placed into the appropriate treatment program,” he said.

I called Alm to find out more. He said, “We knew that we had to take a new tack to deal with homeless pretrial defendants, many of whom are suffering from mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and sometimes all three afflictions.”

Dr. Chad Koyanagi, a psychiatrist working as part of the Institute for Human Service’s street outreach team, has called the Chinatown street dwellers “some of the most disenfranchised, mentally ill and incapacitated people in our society.”

Alm said the plan uses the leverage of the criminal justice system to urge non-violent offenders to agree to treatment rather than face prison time.

“We want to help them get their lives back so they don’t commit crimes in the future, and to stop them from loitering in front of the storefronts of Chinatown businesses where they are currently causing havoc. And maybe in the future they will be able to get into housing. We are really committed to reducing mass incarceration, but doing it in a smart way.”

He says the first Chinatown homeless pretrial defendant was referred to residential substance abuse treatment Dec. 6 and 20 others are currently under consideration for referral to treatment.

He says in the past it often took months to coordinate mental health and addiction treatment services for any willing pretrial defendant.

“Unless we deal with their underlying issues, they will never get off the streets,” he says.

Business owner Schlieman said Alm’s efforts to get addicts into treatment quickly will make a huge difference for Chinatown.

“He knows how to be an innovative thinker and fix things in a creative way,” Schlieman said.

Schlieman and his wife Fran Butera own a black lava-rock building that was once a notorious drug den on the corner of Maunakea and Pauahi streets.

They bought the building at a courthouse auction 20 years ago after federal law enforcement officials seized the property following numerous raids to stop illegal gambling and drug activity. I covered a couple of the raids when I was reporter for KITV-News.

Patrons enjoy lunch at the River of Life Mission located along Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
River of Life Mission says it is negotiating with the city to move its meal service out of Chinatown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Schlieman and Butera say they have been struggling more than ever since they bought the building to run their branding and communications business, Info Grafik, as well as another business Butera owns called Foodscapes that teaches people how to grow organic food in their yards.

Schlieman says some of their clients still are reluctant to come to Chinatown.

He says while the Blangiardi administration works on a long-term structural strategy for Chinatown, it could help struggling residents and businesses by generating short-term projects.

Four projects he mentioned are:

  • Work with the community to wipe out the graffiti and create a program to keep it wiped out.
  • Take the River of Life up on its agreement with the city last year to serve its meals in A’ala Park instead of at their Maunakea Street facility where the organization dishes out from 700 to 1,000 meals a day. In a phone call Sunday, board president Rann Watumull said that River of Life is negotiating with the city to sign a contract to move its public meal service out of Chinatown and into the city’s new $17 million dollar Homeless Resource Center on Iwilei Road and Sumner Street.
  • Clean the streets and sidewalks of trash, bird poop and human excrement and urine and follow up to make sure the streets remain clean.
  • Close Smith-Beretania Park like the city closed Sun Yet Sen Park by the Hawaii Theatre. Schlieman says that would eliminate a place where homeless people now buy, sell and use drugs. He says with such illegal activity in the park now, families with children rarely use it.

Chinatown residents and businesses say they are frustrated most by what they characterize as government lip service to their needs rather that a long-term strategic plan for action.

Schlieman quotes philosopher Thomas Carlyle: “Nothing is more terrible than activity without insight.”

Read this next:

Peter Apo: Money For Digital Equity For Indigenous Groups Is Just A Start

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

As I have walked to work on Bishop Street the past two weeks I have noticed that the homeless are now over there. They are migrating..

Kauakea · 1 year ago

Many thanks for reporting on these pressing Chinatown concerns, Ms. Fawcett. "In 2012, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) stated that, "...between shelters and emergency rooms and jails, it costs about $40,000 a year for a homeless person to be on the streets."  Add to that $40,000 the cost of the abysmal quality of life living on the street as a mentally ill or drug addicted person, as well as, the huge cost to  communities such as Chinatown. We must invest in long-term and permanent supportive housing facilities for these individuals, outside of Oahu's neighborhoods. Also, we must get better at encouraging housing resistant people to avail themselves of these off street  options and provide them the comprehensive services they need.   

Christine66 · 1 year ago

These kinds of intervention programs to assist what are now called the service-resistant homeless population are sorely needed.  More affordable housing, public restrooms and jail time won’t address the underlying challenges some homeless face - as Steve Alm pointed out.  

Localgirl · 1 year ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.