Denby Fawcett: River Of Life Mission Is Leaving Chinatown - Honolulu Civil Beat

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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.

The River of Life Mission has reached an agreement with the city to move its homeless feeding operation out of Chinatown.

Honolulu Managing Director Mike Formby announced the deal in an email today to Chinatown business owners and community advocates.

“Obviously, this is a significant accomplishment,” wrote Formby.

Rann Watumull, president of the board of River of Life, confirmed the agreement but says some details still need to be worked out.

Watumull said he expects the mission to move its feeding center to the city’s new Homeless Resource Center in Iwilei soon but he did not have a date for the relocation.

“It is a process to feed 700 to 1,000 needy people a day,” Watumull said in a phone interview Friday. “We can’t set up shop immediately. There are some issues to deal with first such as figuring out social distancing for our food service seating. We have to make sure the facility is completely ready for us.”

The city’s new $17.2 million dollar resource center will offer not only River of Life’s meal service but also provide needed social services to low income and homeless residents.

UPDATE: Formby said in a phone conversation Saturday the contract stipulates that River of Life must move its operation to the center in Iwilei in 90 days.

“But obviously there is interest on both sides to make this happen as soon as possible,” he said.

And the contract also makes clear that River of Life cannot return to Chinatown to serve cooked meals from the building it owns on Pauahi Street.

“We in no way wanted River of Life to move to Iwilei, cook food in the large new commercial kitchen and then bring it back to serve in Chinatown. The terms of the contract prohibit that,” Formby said.

River of Life, at 101 North Pauahi St., is a Christian mission that has been offering free meals to the homeless and other impoverished people in Chinatown for the last 35 years.

“It is not just about feeding people. We use our meals to reach out to encourage people to change their lives; to get the help they need,” says Watumull.

Patrons enjoy lunch at the River of Life Mission located along Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
Patrons line up for lunch at the River of Life Mission located on Pauahi Street in Chinatown. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

But critics, many of them business owners in the area, say River of Life’s feeding operation has become a magnet for drug dealers and mentally ill people who defecate on the sidewalks where they sleep and spread out their belongings, disrupting businesses and frightening people from coming to Chinatown.

“While it is great that River of Life has been feeding people in Chinatown, the organization has never taken into account the impact it has had on the neighborhood and the chaos it has created,” said Oren Schlieman, owner of Info Grafik, a graphic design business on Maunakea Street.

Schlieman called it great news that River of Life is getting ready to move its food operation. “It is a wonderful way to start the lunar New Year.”

Sam Say has been selling lei from his M.P. Lei Shop directly across the street from River of Life since 1998.

He called Friday’s announcement “such good news.”

Say said the neighborhood has been trying for more than 10 years to get River of Life to take its meal service elsewhere.

“I have had a front row seat to the chaos. Enough is enough,” he said. “This will make Chinatown so much safer for the vendors.”

Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s administration has been working for a year to get the mission to come to terms on moving the feeding operation out of Chinatown.

In his email to the Chinatown advocates Friday, Formby wrote, “although it has taken us longer than expected to come to an enforceable mutual agreement, I am confident ROL’s decision to relocate will be for the benefit of all — ROL, their constituency who rely upon their services, and the Chinatown community.”


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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)

Moving the River of Life mission to Iwilei, into a larger facility to actually serve the homeless rather than just be a soup kitchen for them, is a good thing. I get it, ROL probably looked at going into Chinatown so many years ago to serve the homeless as a way to "attack the issue at its core". Fine and dandy, you service the people there but the problem is that either ROL forgot the other half of the equation - actually getting homeless off the street. Or it became too overwhelmed when it became the go-to for food for the homeless, and that was it. If ROL is going to uphold its mission, it needs to effectively run both sides of the coin - care now, and then give intense aide over the longer term. Its seems the second half of this equation, the Fed, state and City, along with their partners, have yet to master.

Kana_Hawaii · 10 months ago

More NIMBY. The drugs and crime will not go away in this area.

Stosh · 10 months ago

City streets and parks, especially in the downtown, business, shopping and residential districts, are never an appropriate place to house the homeless. Any homeless assistance program must include removing the homeless from the streets as an integral part and a top priority. Here are some working example: the Homeless Garden Project just west of Santa Cruz and Family Shelters near San Diego. Check it out. Why can't we set up something like this on Oahu's agricultural lands?

Chiquita · 10 months ago

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