There are promising signs that Chinatown may be turning a corner toward a brighter future: Far fewer homeless and mentally ill people are clustered in its doorways and alleys, the foul smells are dissipating and the palpable sense of fear is fading.

A historic neighborhood that has served as the reception point to the islands for generations of newcomers, Chinatown has always been rough around the edges, a place where poor people arrive and struggle to survive and where urban nightlife thrives.

But the neighborhood had descended in the past few years into a distressed and crime-ridden dystopia overrun by desperate homelessness and a raft of related urban ills.

Crime of almost all kinds rose in Chinatown between 2020 and 2021, according to the Honolulu Police Department’s most recent annual report, with aggravated assaults jumping 35% from 63 in 2020 to 85 in 2021. Rape, robbery, larceny and auto theft rose. In April, a repeat criminal offender stalked a 79-year-old man, then set him on fire.

Center, Kevin Lye leads the Citizen Patrol downtown from Kukui Plaze thru the Riverwalk area, thru Aala Park and to Iwilei in the early evening.
Center, Kevin Lye leads the Citizen Patrol downtown from Kukui Plaza through the Riverwalk area, through Aala Park and to Iwilei in the early evening. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Wanton violence plagued the area in other ways. Local shops suffered an epidemic of smashed windows. Graffiti has been sprayed, repeatedly, on charming historic structures. The last Longs Drugs downtown, vitally needed by local seniors, shut down this month.

But Chinatown is a plucky place that has always had resilience at its core, having in previous decades fought off fire, pestilence and misguided urban redevelopment initiatives that threatened its extinction. Despite the avalanche of recent bad news, Chinatown appears on the threshold of an upswing.

Residents say this is happening as a result of concerted efforts by local advocates who demanded change and actions taken in response by newly elected government officials, including Mayor Rick Blangiardi, Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm, police and other city government agencies.

A major turning point was an agreement in January with the River of Life Mission, a Christian ministry, to stop its food distribution program that had long drawn long lines of homeless people to the building in Chinatown.

Noteworthy Changes

At its peak, about 250 homeless people, many with substance abuse and mental health problems, roamed the streets of Chinatown. Now the consensus is that there are about 50, according to members of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board.

On a recent nighttime walk through the streets of Chinatown by four members of the Citizen Patrol, few homeless people were visible. The community  group was able to amble the promenade along the Nuuanu Stream, once a hotbed of drug-dealing, illegal gambling and prostitution, taking in the evening breeze and enjoying the scenery.

“Normally they would have been wall to wall, lining both sides of the street, camping out,” said Kevin Lye, the leader of the Chinatown citizen’s patrol. “We didn’t see many if any on River Street.”

People gather along River Street laying on cardboard and and makeshift living areas.
Chinatown has long had a problem with homelessness. But residents say the situation has improved. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Other patrol participants looked around in awe. “Look how clean it is,” said Robert Armstrong, an eight-year Chinatown resident.

Citizen patrols are joint efforts between the community and the Honolulu Police Department to add more eyes and ears to the street to watch for criminal activity and point out potential problems. Lye, a doctor and entrepreneur, began leading the Chinatown patrol two years ago when the previous leaders became too ill or elderly to continue. Chinatown has had the patrol for decades. Under Lye’s leadership, the group converges on Fort Street and warily heads out to survey the community once a month.

Chinatown residents are somewhat stunned by the change after years of worry and disappointment, but they are cautiously optimistic.

“It’s been a long wait, but things are finally happening in a good way,” said bank teller and musician Laura Sturges, chair of the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board.

“It’s improving in lots of ways,” said Chu Lan Shubert-Kwock, president of the Chinatown Community and Business Association. “I have a lot of hope.”

“It’s getting better,” said Sam Say, owner of MP Lei Shop, a 25-year-old business at the corner of Pauahi and Maunakea. “It’s much cleaner, there are fewer homeless and there is less screaming and yelling.”

Some Chinatown residents credit Blangiardi, who promised early in his tenure to make helping Chinatown a litmus test for his administration. He came to the neighborhood board meeting on June 7 to reiterate his support, calling Chinatown’s problems “a long-term challenge and a long-term solution.”

He pledged himself and his entire cabinet to the effort: “Someday we are going to look back and say, ‘We did a good job,’” he said.

Mayor Rick Blangiardi speaks to media during press conference held after his State of Honolulu speech.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi promised to make improving Chinatown a priority for his administration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Chinatown was clearly on his mind as he took over city administration from former Mayor Kirk Caldwell. In his State of the City address in March 2021, Blangiardi called Chinatown “terribly neglected,” and said he intended to make reforms and infrastructure improvements.

Other actions soon followed. In July, the city boosted police patrols in the area.

An Important Agreement

Then Honolulu Managing Director Mike Formby announced the agreement with the River of Life Mission, ending a lengthy political tug-of-war between the ministry and city officials about food distribution and its effect in bringing homeless people into the neighborhood. In early April, River of Life made the switch to what ministry representatives call mobile operations.

This new approach is “going phenomenal” for them, said River of Life’s donor relations manager, Sherry Finke. She said that instead of concentrating its services in one place, Chinatown, the church’s mobile units now travel around the city to hubs of homelessness as they emerge.

When the mission concentrated its food program solely in Chinatown, it served only 200 people a day, she said. At their six new hub locations elsewhere, including one at nearby Iwilei, they are reaching 300 to 325 people.

“We wish this would have happened years ago,” Finke said. “We’re seeing so many new faces but we are still there for the people we have seen all along. It’s been a huge blessing for us.”

Patrons enjoy lunch at the River of Life Mission located along Pauahi Street in Chinatown.
Lines outside the River of Life Mission were long a sore spot in Chinatown. The mission agreed in January to move its meal distribution operation and says its new mobile operations are more effective. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

She said that River of Life has been collaborating closely with the city to provide services to homeless people.

“I love what they’re doing,” she said. “I love that the mayor’s office has a person focused on the homeless and we work together to fill the gaps in on homelessness. The implementation of their programs has been excellent.”

The new program is more effective for the church group’s purposes, too, River of Life Pastor Paul Gates said in a video message.

“We made a decision to go out, to go mobile, to really reach our guests where they are at,” he said. “In this smaller context we can have more intimate conversations that lead to great transitions in their lives. In the last two months of going mobile, we have seen 11 people transition off the streets and seven people accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”

To a great extent, however, moving people out of one place has only resulted in them moving elsewhere. Homeless encampments in Iwilei, an industrial and commercial district, seem to be larger now, say local residents.

“I think it’s sort of a shell game,” Lye said.

People are living under tarps outside a new $17 million complex  in Iwilei with 27 family units that sits vacant, a topic that drew criticism from the Honolulu City Council at a recent meeting. City officials said the building is vacant four months after it was completed because of problems finding a service provider to occupy and operate it, Hawaii News Now reported.

Kevin Lye leads the Citizen Patrol past tents along Iwilei Road thru downtown from Kukui Plaze then to the Riverwalk area, thru Aala Park and to Iwilei in the early evening.
Chinatown residents worry that problematic homeless people who have moved out of their neighborhood are just shifting location to nearby Iwilei, to sites like this encampment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Some Chinatown homeless people have been helped into housing, with services provided to them through a new program called CORE, or Crisis, Outreach, Response and Engagement, which was launched in October.

Others landed in jail but then in treatment. The city’s prosecuting attorney credits a pilot project in Chinatown called SUDA-Fast, or Substance Use Disorder Assessment-Fast. Since July, more than 115 people were arrested for felony drug possession, taken to jail but then diverted from the streets, with the consent of the individual, prosecutor, public defender and judge, into substance abuse prevention programs instead, Alm said.

“We’re all working together to get people into treatment,” Alm said. “There are a lot of hurdles and getting all these agencies working together is a real challenge.”

The Honolulu Police Department beefed up police oversight through a program called Weed and Seed, but many residents think they now need more officers walking the beat in Chinatown. In fact, the state police union has warned that staffing shortages are resulting in unfilled beats, including in Chinatown.

“It’s been a long wait, but things are finally happening in a good way.” — Laura Sturges, neighborhood board chair

At the neighborhood board meeting, Blangiardi was pressed by residents and board members about the need for a higher level of policing in Chinatown, and he said he agreed.

“We want a stronger police presence there as a deterrent,” he said.

Police Action

HPD has established a Chinatown Task Force, District 1’s Maj. Calvin Sung said in an email, adding that police are working with the city prosecutor in the Weed and Seed program.

That “allows immediate charging and high bail for certain offenses,” but also works with homeless care providers to facilitate quicker care for people who need social service support, he said.

All these programs and changes have combined to change the urban landscape in Chinatown. The decline in the number of homeless people had an almost immediate positive effect, said Sean Fitzsimmons, a lawyer who serves as vice chair of the neighborhood board.

“There’s been a huge impact from the departure of River of Life,” Fitzsimmons said. “It’s a huge boon to downtown’s safety and walkability.”

Say, the lei store operator, said that safer streets and fewer homeless people will be good for business because some of his clients had stopped visiting the store.

“The elderly ladies are scared, afraid they will attack you,” he said.

Shubert-Kwock, who has been a Chinatown activist for decades, said she believed that the changes underway will permit an economic revitalization in Chinatown that will benefit local businesses and the community.

“A lot of people stopped coming because of the filth, the stench, the urine,” she said. “People on the sidewalk were taunting you and scaring you. People were right not to come to Chinatown. It wasn’t safe.”

Now, she said, if police prosecutions continue and homeless services continue to work more effectively with people in need of help, there’s a good chance of continued improvement. She credits city officials for the work they are doing.

“So many politicians make promises, then crap on us and don’t follow the law,” she said. “Blangiardi is serious. He said why let such an important place go to waste. He made the right call and hired the right people and said, ‘We can’t let this happen.’”

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