For many people experiencing homelessness in Honolulu, the Safe Haven center in Chinatown has been a reliable place to sleep, shower, store belongings and receive services. 

It’s been an “anchor” for people like Christie Claussen, whose mental illness and addiction have prevented her from living in stable housing for most of the last several years, her mother Marti Claussen said. Christie sleeps on the sidewalks and parks near the center and visits Safe Haven daily. It’s where her mother leaves messages for her. 

“It’s just been kind of a home base,” Marti Claussen said. 

But it won’t be for long. Safe Haven will be closing its doors on Pauahi Street later this year.

Pauahi Hale / Safe Haven shelter located at 126 Pauahi Street.
The Safe Haven shelter located at 126 Pauahi Street has operated in Chinatown since 2015. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Mental Health Kokua, which has run Safe Haven out of a city-owned building since 2015, was asked to vacate its Pauahi Street premises when its lease expires in November, if not sooner, according to Executive Director Greg Payton. He is now looking for a new home for the nonprofit’s 25-bed permanent supportive housing program for adults with severe mental illness. 

Payton’s nonprofit is one of three homeless service providers on Oahu whose operations are in flux as they seek new locations. 

The Family Assessment Center in Kakaako is now vacant and seeking to transition to a new space after a city land transfer made its current location legally untenable. Catholic Charities, which runs its programming, will continue operating it in a new location that has yet to be determined, according to Hawaii Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amanda Stevens.

And the Next Step emergency shelter’s state contract is up at the end of June. Its current facility in Kakaako will be converted into a space for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Stevens said. 

Next Step was always intended to be temporary, according to Stevens. In preparation for its closure, DHS opened the Keauhou emergency shelter in January 2020 to maintain emergency shelter capacity. That facility – which, like Next Step, is run by Waikiki Health – is designed with more privacy for shelter clients, she said. 

‘A Rebirth Of Chinatown’

Safe Haven’s relocation is part of Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s effort to revitalize Chinatown, Payton said. 

“We’ve been working really closely with the neighborhood board and with the city to try to find a location so people won’t congregate in Chinatown,” he said. “We’re trying to respond to the concerns of the local merchants.” 

Chinatown residents have complained for years about the prevalence of homelessness in their community. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Neighborhood residents have complained for years about the impacts of homelessness and mental illness on local quality of life and on the neighborhood’s grocers, lei shops and restaurants. Blangiardi, who took office in January, has been listening. 

His administration has made Chinatown’s revitalization a main priority. City officials convinced River of Life, which fed homeless people for years, to leave the area. The group served its last meal last week. And with Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, the city has reinstituted a Weed and Seed program to target offenders engaged in drug crimes, trespassing and property destruction. 

The city also has made efforts to plant more trees, remove graffiti, install security cameras and make other improvements, city officials said during a live-streamed presentation in February. 

“This place was in disrepair, almost overwhelmingly,” the mayor said during the virtual meeting. “There is so much to be done, but we’re committed to that.” 

A gated Chinatown business.
Chinatown businesses try to keep people experiencing homelessness out of their entrance ways. Courtesy: Alia Pan

Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, a community leader, said residents are thankful and feel like the city is finally taking their concerns seriously. 

“I call it a rebirth of Chinatown,” she said. “It’s a new beginning. People are very hopeful.” 

In Shubert-Kwock’s opinion, Safe Haven was part of the problem. She believes its presence attracted people who sit or lie on the sidewalk, use drugs, fight in the street or engage in other unwelcome behavior. 

“I’m very glad we’re going to repurpose it,” she said, adding that the absence of River of Life is already being felt. “It’s so much cleaner, less yelling and screaming.” 

Payton said his organization has tried to be a good neighbor. Even if his clients aren’t directly causing problems with local businesses, he said they are often “associated” with those complaints. 

“If there is a way we can help, we are certainly willing to do that,” he said. 

After November, the Pauahi Hale building will be transformed into another kind of low-income housing, Payton said. Safe Haven will either relocate all 25 of its beds to a new space or divide the program into two or three pieces, he said. 

Claussen said she can certainly understand the community’s frustration with homelessness. But she fears Safe Haven’s uncertain future could mean one less resource for her daughter, who wants to get into permanent housing but needs help getting there. 

“It’s been such a struggle with my daughter,” she said. “It’s some peace of mind knowing there is something besides the streets.” 

‘Housing That Meets Their Needs’

The Family Assessment Center in Kakaako had been operating on land the state transferred to the city in 2019. The land became part of a city park, which legally cannot be leased to outside entities because “park lands are held in public trust,” according to Laura H. Thielen, the city parks director. 

The shelter was given 18 months to find a new space, and that time period expired in August, she said. The city allowed the program to stay a few months past its lease expiration, but eventually, it had to move out.

Family Assessment Center, Program Director Adrian Contreras speaks to visitors before residents start moving into the building tomorrow. Maximum 50 people can live in this shelter. 27 sept 2016
The Family Assessment Center clients slept in cubicles in a large shared room. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

“It was never intended for them to be there for the long term,” Thielen said. “It was a temporary accommodation until permanent accommodations could be found.” 

But the program has struggled to find a suitable new location, according to shelter volunteer John Fielding. Catholic Charities, which is contracted by the state to run the shelter, stopped accepting intakes last month, and as of last week, the facility was empty, he said. 

It’s now becoming more and more worrisome,” Fielding said. 

The Hawaii Department of Human Services said in a statement that it is actively working to find a new location for the Family Assessment Center. 

Finding new spaces for homeless services is tough, according to Laura E. Thielen, director of Partners In Care, a homeless services coordinator. 

Locating existing buildings that can accommodate congregate shelters is difficult, but so is finding the funding to construct something new, she said. Either way, residents tend to oppose the opening of homeless services in their neighborhoods, she said. 

“It’s a frustrating thing, especially if it’s a residential area, you don’t want to overpopulate it but at the same time we don’t want folks in the street,” she said. “We want them in proper housing that meets their needs.” 

Civil Beat’s health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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