One UH architecture student’s proposal for the River Street Residences.
Image: courtesy mireille turin

River Street Residences aim to help downtown homeless

Community / A Punahou education and childhood in Kahala didn’t prevent Connie Geisler from becoming homeless. But thanks to help from places like the Institute of Human Services and downtown’s River of Life Mission, Geisler was able to fight her drug addiction and get back on her feet. She now has a steady job and owns a car.

“I was helped,” said Geisler. “Having a roof over my head helped a lot.”

Drug addiction and homelessness are widespread on Oahu, and it’s no secret that downtown Honolulu has the island’s second-highest concentration of homeless people, second only to the Waianae Coast.

Geisler emphasized the importance of obtaining housing first above all else, even before other important services, such as drug addiction treatment. And now, following success stories of people like Geisler, as well as numerous other examples of the “Housing First” model in other American cities, the Honolulu Department of Community Services has proposed a transitional housing unit called the River Street Residences, on the block of River between Vineyard and Beretania. The unit wouldn’t be a shelter, but a permanent affordable rental housing project, with resources including “a program of onsite supportive services” and staffing “on a 24-hour basis,” according to city officials. Eligible residents would include individuals, couples, small families and persons with disabilities or special needs.

In cities like Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver, “Housing First” has cut homelessness almost in half, as well as significantly reduced emergency rooms visits, as well as jail and prison overnights–all of which saves taxpayer money.

After a string of meetings, including a May 20 community forum, city funds have been approved for River Street Residences, adding to money garnered from a federal development community block grant for affordable housing.

There has also been discussion of a plan that would set aside a percentage of the units for mentally ill tenants, as an estimated one-third of the homeless population lives with mental illness. That proposal was ultimately abandoned after outcry from members of the neighborhood board.

“The city doesn’t provide services for mental health,” said councilman Rod Tam, explaining why many downtown and Chinatown residents and businesses were against the mental illness component of the project. “It’s more of a state responsibility.”

Tam said he hopes the state will partner with the city to find those members of the population who could most benefit from living in the proposed housing project. Without state cooperation, he says, tenants would be selected purely based on income.

“We want the governor and mayor to recognize each other’s talents,” said Tam. “If the state won’t work with us, we’ll recommend that the City work on an economic base.”

To quell fears that more homeless people will move downtown solely to qualify for the River Street transitional housing, city officials say they will use referrals by downtown outreach workers to select potential residents.

“We’ve looked at every other option [of helping the homeless]: outreach workers, transition programs, shelters, offering treatment programs,” said Department of Community Services director Debbie Kim Morikawa. “The ‘Housing First’ models do work. People get in, and start to seek treatment and get better. If there is no program like that, how do you want to address this?”

Morikawa and Tam are jointly working on a Request for Proposals, detailing the aspects of the housing project, due out by the end of July. It’s slated to detail specifics about the project, like how many units will be in the building and what the operational plan will look like.

Having spoken “to the majority of non-profit developers in town about the scope, scale and concept of the project,” Morikawa said that a number of organizations have shown interest in obtaining the contract to develop the unit, including Institute for Human Services, Mental Health Kokua, Kalihi-Palama Health Center, U.S. Vets and Pacific Housing Corporation. Any for-profit developers interested in taking on the project would have to partner with a non-profit organization.

“The mayor is supporting this,” added Morikawa.

Tom Smyth, member and former president of the Downtown Neighborhood Board, said he expects the project to move forward swiftly.

“It’s in an urban area already,” said Smyth. “Water and electricity are all in place…no need for a zoning hearing.”

Once the formal proposal is released, it will be reviewed and awarded to an organization. The design will then be presented for community input. Final approval must come from the City Council.

Whatever organization is chosen to develop the project will also be urged to strongly consider the design elements that UH-Manoa architecture students incorporated into their assignments under architecture professor Mireille Turin. At the May meeting, Turin explained that she urged students to “think beyond the primary needs of a shelter.” Elements of the completed designs include green building principles, placing support services on the first and second floors, private meeting areas for interfacing with service workers, a community garden and community spaces for jobs, maybe even a satellite Goodwill.

While a city issue, state representative Karl Rhoads–who lives in the neighborhood–shared that the “the best that any [constituents] have indicated to me is tolerance.”

“People are saying this is a ‘not in my back yard’ issue,” said Morikawa. To be sure, some organizations have expressed fears of the culture of Chinatown changing or places such as the Kwan Yin temple and Mun Lun School being disturbed by housing residents if the complex is built.

“If we talk about the spiritual and cultural,” Morikawa countered, “many people could really use being in a spiritual and cultural location.”

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