Complaints Escalate At Kakaakao Homeless Shelter

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Less than six months after problems surfaced at the Next Step homeless shelter in Kakaako, residents and some state officials are worried things may be getting worse.

In February, resident David Cannell and others told the media about problems with hot water, bedbugs, rats and leaky roofs at the shelter, a 200-bed converted warehouse at the end of a Honolulu Harbor pier.

Many of the same complaints remain. But this time Cannell charges shelter administrators with "human rights abuses and shameful neglect of homeless people."

In a July 13 letter to Next Step management, reproduced in full at the end of this article, Cannell writes:

I am a wheelchair-bound, handicapped man with diabetic complications, including recurrent staph infections from the bedbug bites I got from the shelter. It is oppressive for you to kick a vulnerable poor person like me out of the shelter for minor violations of absurd, petty, inconsistent rules. You have never suffered modest circumstances in your whole life, and thus it is hard for you to comprehend how devastating it is to banish me to the streets, where I have no place to even charge my electric wheelchair. However meager the protection of the shelter is, it is still protection from the streets. What you have done is counter to all values of fairness, decency and justice. You treat people with disabilities as if you are superior to them, but you exhibit more mental illness than the sickest person in the shelter, because you are actually attacking defenseless people. 

Cannell is not alone in his complaints, and he has support.

At a media availability at Kakaako Waterfront Park on Tuesday, Cannell and other residents or former residents were joined by state Rep. John Mizuno, who has lead efforts on the Hawaii Legislature to address affordable housing and homelessness.

Mizuno says he's heard allegations of "abuse of power and possible civil rights violations." He and Rep. Tom Brower, whose Waikiki-Ala Moana-Kapiolani Park district is home to many homeless, want to see improved communication between shelter residents and staff.

Meanwhile, Carroll Cox, a local radio host and watchdog who was also at the media availability, suggests that the shelter be audited.

Darlene Hein of the Waikiki Health Center, which contracts with the state to run Next Step, defended the shelter — it is 97 percent at capacity, demonstrating that people use the service — and Jason Espero, its coordinator.

"There are people in this world who are callous and don't care, but Jason is not one of them," she said. "He's smart, he's a good guy and he wants to do the right thing. I feel bad for him because he's the focus of complaints and he's just getting pummeled.

Cannell, however, blames Espero for "blatant professional ineptitude," even "tyranny." He's calling for the state to terminate its contract with Waikiki Health Center, and for lawmakers to consider levying a "progressive tax" on the wealthy to help pay for affordable housing.

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