The River of Life Mission will move its free meal distribution center from Chinatown to different locations on Oahu instead of consolidating the operation in the city’s new homeless resource center as initially reported, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said Thursday.

The Christian mission has been offering free meals to homeless and other needy people from its headquarters in Chinatown for more than three decades. But the operation has been criticized by local business owners and others who claim it was a magnet for drug dealers and frequently disruptive behavior by people living on the streets.

River of Life President Rann Watumull said the organization does not have exact locations for the new food hubs but is working with community groups, the city, the Institute for Human Services and others to explore different possibilities.

Patrons eat lunch outside the River of Life Mission located on Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
The River of Life Mission on Pauahi Street in Chinatown has served more than 12 million free meals during its 35 years in operation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The mission announced last month that it had reached an agreement with the city to move the free meal distribution operation out of Chinatown but said at the time it would likely be relocated to the city’s new homeless resource center in Iwilei.

Relocating the food centers to many different sites instead of one location will allow the mission to operate more effectively, he said, adding that River of Life expects to stop providing free meals in Chinatown before the end of the year.

“Instead of feeding hundreds of people in one place we can serve maybe 30 people or more in different locations where we can concentrate on their specific needs and get them to the exact services they need,” said Watumull.

He said in its 35 years of operation in Chinatown ROL has served more than 12 million meals in the building it owns at 101 N. Pauahi St.

“It has never been just about feeding the homeless. It has been about using food to build trust, to find out what peoples’ needs are and to place them in services where they need to be placed,” he said.

The mission will keep its Chinatown location with its chocolate-making operation, administrative offices and a service that provides 2,000 boxes of uncooked food each month to elderly residents in the neighborhood.

Blangiardi said he respects River of Life’s 35 years of free meal service, but he criticized what he called the unintended consequences of having homeless people, including many who are mentally ill or “whacked on drugs,” congregate in Chinatown, causing safety issues for the community.

“It has not been good. They are moving. We are going to clean it up. It is going to be better for everyone and we are going to be treating people with needs better than they have been treated before,” he said.

He said River of Life will not be involved with the city’s $17 million homeless resource center in Iwilei. The city is actively seeking another tenant for the center through the request for proposal process.

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