Denby Fawcett: Business Owners Face Special Challenges Posed By The Homeless Crisis - 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.

Before the pandemic, I used to enjoy going to dinner gatherings at Yong’s Kitchen in Chinatown, a restaurant famous for its taro duck and honey barbecue ribs.

Opinion article badgeBut like many businesses during the pandemic, Yong’s lost much of its income when it had to close during the pandemic restrictions, and it kept losing money even after reopening because some customers were scared away by the increase in homeless campers in Chinatown at night.

The restaurant had to reduce its service mostly to lunchtime visitors and takeout orders. It shut down at 6 p.m. each night.

The business prospects at Yong’s got even dimmer when a homeless man took up permanent residence in front of the restaurant in November and refused to move.

This column is not to vilify people living on the streets — it is not a crime to be homeless — but to describe how difficult it can be under Hawaii law to get homeless trespassers off commercial private property.

And what happened at Yong’s is an example of how Hawaii’s homelessness crisis can add even more problems for business owners as they struggle to recover from the pandemic.

Additionally, this story shows the importance of neighbors and advocates stepping in to help. A solution to Yong’s homeless trespass problem probably would have not have emerged without a group of nearby landowners and Chinatown advocates who got involved after watching the hard-working restaurant owners suffer.

Cuong Phuoc Hinh, Yong’s cook and co-owner, said in an interview Friday, “Customers did not want to come in the restaurant. They were too scared.”

The bearded, shirtless individual in front of Yong’s is not known to have harmed anyone but his intoxicated, unpredictable behavior made people uneasy. Sometimes he shouted obscenities at passersby and occasionally he invited other rowdy friends to drink with him in front of the restaurant. They used the restaurants green garbage bin as their tabletop.

Other homeless people also parked themselves in front of the restaurant to drink alcohol or eat their food in Styrofoam boxes from the River of Life Mission half a block away.

Hinh’s co-owner, Mei Lei, said some customers coming to pick up their orders insisted that she bring the food out to their cars because they did not want to walk past seemingly intoxicated or agitated people hanging out in front.

To get a homeless person to move off of private property requires much more involvement with the police than persuading a loiterer to move on from a public sidewalk.

“This can be a time-consuming process for property owners as it requires them to file a criminal trespass complaint, then issue the trespass warning to the violator, and sometimes testify in court,” Honolulu Police Major Calvin Sung wrote in an email. “It’s not uncommon for a property owner to just want the violator to move away from their property, and they may choose not to file a criminal complaint.”

Yong's Kitchen located on Maunakea street.
Yong’s Kitchen on Maunakea Street in Chinatown found its business disrupted by a homeless camper and enlisted the assistance of other business owners to get the man moved from the area. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Police could not arrest the homeless individual in front of Yong’s under Honolulu’s “sit-lie” law — a city ordinance that prohibits people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks.

That’s because he was either standing or sitting on a chair on a three-foot wide strip of private property between Yong’s restaurant and the public sidewalk. The strip of pavement looks like public sidewalk but is not.

Yong’s recessed, paved entrance is private property, in keeping with Honolulu’s fire code requirement that any establishment serving 50 or more people must have doors that open outward, and the doors that open outward cannot swing directly onto public sidewalks.

That’s why you see so many recessed doorways in Chinatown, as well as occasional recessed buildings like Yong’s. The doorways are recessed to leave enough room for the doors to swing outward without going over the public sidewalk.

Architect Glenn Mason says this fire code requirement has created an unfortunate situation by making buildings safer for people to exit during fires, yet the recessed doorways have inadvertently provided what he calls “homes for the homeless.”

Mason is Hawaii’s premier historic building architect and for 16 years, he and his business partner, the late Spencer Leinweber, had their office in Chinatown.

Late at night you see many homeless in Chinatown and elsewhere in Honolulu sleeping in the recessed entries. To try to prevent homeless people from sneaking in, some property owners have erected makeshift fences or put up chains after they shut down their businesses at night.

On March 3, Chinatown advocate Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock finally persuaded Yong’s co-owner Mei Lei to call the Honolulu Police Department to get a written trespass warning against the homeless individual on her property — an order that required him to stay away from Yong’s for a year or else be arrested and possibly prosecuted for trespass in the second degree, a petty misdemeanor.

Eric Wong, the property manager of Kekaulike Courtyards, an affordable housing complex two blocks away from Yong’s, helped Mei Lei get the order.

“It seemed wrong to have an intoxicated man standing in front to the restaurant, yelling at people for no reason,” Wong said. “Bothering them and sometimes frightening them.”

After Mei Lei signed the trespass order March 3, with a police officer present at the restaurant, Wong read the warning to the man whom he said reluctantly picked up his belongings and left.

But the trouble was, he kept coming back.

Just three hours after the trespass order was served, the man returned, setting up a chair and a shopping cart in front of the restaurant. HPD arrested him, but he was back out on the street the next day.

In an email to Wong and other Chinatown advocates on March 4, Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm explained that his office declined to prosecute the individual after a careful review of the police officer’s arrest report and body camera footage.

Alm said the evidence made clear that the man was on the public sidewalk and not on Yong’s private property portion of the sidewalk.

On March 7, Alm sent another email to the Chinatown advocates, saying the private property at Yong’s street front entrance would have to be more clearly delineated for any judge to convict a person for trespassing.

“I know this sounds like a lot of legalese run amok but welcome to our world,” Alm wrote.

The homeless man returned to Yong’s again on March 9, when owner Mei Lei said he walked into the restaurant, making her lunch customers uneasy when he went up to the counter to ask her to give him food.

The police came, but Mei Lei refused to press charges. The officer told her they could not arrest him.

But it turns out that was not true. Because the man had already been served with an official police warning, she did not need to press charges.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Karl Rhoads, who was emailing with the advocates, told them a bill he authored that became law in 2019 makes clear that a property owner or lessee does not have to sign a complaint, if there has been an official warning.

“Once a trespass warning has been issued, a violator can be arrested without any witness other than the officer making the arrest,” Rhoads wrote.

On Friday, with Mei Lei’s permission, the Chinatown advocates — including Wong, Chinatown business owner Fran Butera and Shubert-Kwock — painted yellow lines on the pavement in front of Yong’s to make it explicit where the homeless individual could get arrested if he returned.

Yong's Kitchen with painted lines located on Maunakea street.
The entrance area at Yong’s Kitchen was painted to show where the private property begins. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Lee Stack, president of the Chinatown Improvement District, bought the paint and stencils for the words “private property” and “no trespassing,” and was part of the painting crew.

Stack is a Chinatown landowner who has had similar homeless trespasser problems on properties she leases to businesses.

Alm called the painting “a good move.”

“Senator Rhoads’ bill is very helpful and we will be able to prosecute as long as we have an eyewitness who viewed the trespass,” Alm wrote. “Trespass warnings need to be specific as to what property is private as opposed to public. Clear signage and painting of private sidewalk areas are creative ways to make trespass warnings effective.”

The homeless individual now seems to understand the consequences. When I asked him on Friday why he had not returned to Yong’s, he said, “I will get arrested.”

As some readers will point out, homelessness is not a problem that ends. It just moves, like homeless people, from place to place.

But at least in this case, the owners of Yong’s Kitchen have found some relief and maybe, gradually, their customers will begin to return to enjoy dinners inside the restaurant’s softly lit, pink walls.

And the advocates said they are hoping that maybe the persistence of Yong’s owners will encourage other Chinatown merchants to see it is possible — albeit with a lot of effort — to get homeless trespassers to leave their properties.

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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)

Thanks for a story showing people can find solutions! Happy Yong's can do a great business again.

FrancesLu · 4 months ago

Will houselessness increase in the US with the 100,000 Ukrainians that the Biden Administration is welcoming into the country?

Joseppi · 4 months ago

Houselessness is the lack off a house. All people seek shelter, covered sidewalk, bus stop, under a bridge, Single room only all illegal or legislated into non existence. we don't need to build "houses" but need support safe "shelters". Living on the beach in our threat weather is attractive for people who leave their home state to live in Hawaii drain resources from residents who have forced to live on the streets. The law has failed to address because public funding is involved so Hawaii will find that improving services can lead to unlimited expenditures from federal and state resources. Separation of funding sources is the next step to allocate resources for Hawaii residents. Federal funds should be requested for limited services under Federal laws (benefits adjusted up as it does for the military non residents). Separate the issue from Homelessness where we must address existing medical and criminal issues. Refusal of care is a "right" but not to the point of endangering the self or others and it would apply to both residents and non residents. Our legal systems has yet to address eligibility for services for people that crossover our state and our national borders.

Willyee · 4 months ago

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