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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rally held for River St. project

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Alverna Robertson, who lives at the Next Step homeless shelter, joined in the Interfaith Coalition's rally.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Bun-Ok Choi still shudders when she thinks about the year she spent living on the streets in Waikk.

She remembers showering at Ala Moana Beach Park, trying to stay as clean as possible for whatever off-the-books work she could get cleaning houses or washing dishes. She remembers the thieves and scammers and addicts whose very presence kept her in a state of constant fear.

Choi, who now resides at the Next Step shelter but still battles a host of physical and psychological ills, was one of more than 90 people who attended a rally yesterday in support of the stalled River Street Residences project. The rally was held at Harris United Methodist Church on Vineyard Street and was organized by a coalition of area churches.

The proposed project, which follows the Housing First model used in Seattle and other communities, would provide permanent shelter to homeless people.

Following the Housing First model, residents of the proposed 100-unit facility would be encouraged but not required to seek treatment for mental health, drug, alcohol or other issues.

"A lot of these people have been on the street for a long time just trying to survive," said Debbie Kim Morikawa, director of the city's Department of Community Services. "By having a permanent environment, they can let down their guard, and results have shown that if they can let their guard down, they can then focus on their problems."

The project would be built on a lot previously purchased for affordable housing.

Some $4.6 million has been designated for the project, but the funds will lapse at the end of the current fiscal year if action is not taken on the proposal.

A detailed plan for the project has already been completed but has not been released because of strong opposition from City Councilman Rod Tam and area business associations. City officials have said they will not move forward with the proposed project without the support of Downtown residents. In July, the Downtown Neighborhood Board voted 6-2 against the proposal.

Organizers said yesterday's rally was an effort to raise awareness and demonstrate the sort of broad community support necessary to get the project moving again.

River of Life executive director Bob Marchand, who supports the project, shared concerns he's heard from Chinatown merchants, including fears that the new facility will act as a "magnet" for homeless people.

Kim Morikawa said such fears stem from the misperception that the facility would be similar to existing shelters and meal services, which regularly attract long lines of clients.

"If you have your own place, why would you hang around outside?" Kim Morikawa asked.

Choi said she hopes to one day live in the River Street Residences.

"I'm stuck and I don't know how to get untangled," she said. "I can't find the light at the end of the tunnel, but I look forward to having a place where I can be safe."