As Kakaako's homeless problem persists, Children's Discovery Center weighs its future

As Kakaako's homeless problem persists, Children's Discovery Center weighs its future 10pm

KAKAAKO (HawaiiNewsNow) - For years, the head of the Children's Discovery Center has kept quiet about the crisis outside her front door.

Now, for the first time, Loretta Yajima is going public to ask for help.

"When I talk about the children and I talk about the Children's Discovery Center, very rarely do I get tongue tied. But in this instance I am somewhat reluctant to share some of the trials and tribulations we've been through," said center CEO Loretta Yajima.

The center is situated in the heart of Kakaako, which has long been ground zero for urban Honolulu's homeless crisis.

While the homeless encampment near the museum is now smaller than in months past, it's still large enough to keep many family away, Yajima said.

Before the homeless moved into the area, the museum averaged more than 120,000 visitors a year. That's dropped 30 percent. And since the center doesn't receive city or federal funding for operations, it's up to private donors to keep the non-profit afloat.

Earlier this month, Yajima hit a breaking point and decided to send an email to her landlord, the Hawaii Community Development Authority, about the situation.

"It took a lot before I had the courage to put things down in writing and part of the reason I did is because it was my sincere desire to start this wonderful children's museum for generations of children," she said.

But if things don't change, that might not be possible.

Yajima said even with the smaller homeless population in Kakaako these days, she still grapples with a host of issues that the encampment brings. She starts her day outside the center, cleaning up urine, trash and feces so the sidewalks are clear when her staff arrives.

On top of that, the museum spends tens of thousands of dollars every year on repairs.

"We've had a lot of things burned, broken or vandalized," said Yajima.

Yajima herself has also been the target of physical threats.

"Any personal threats against me were never what I was most fearful of. I think more than anything I was fearful people would be afraid to come to the center," said Yajima.

In the meantime, Yajima says her staff go through extraordinary efforts to ensure the museum is clean, safe and welcoming.

"When we have camps and educational programs, the teachers go down to the sidewalks to register the children who come in. (They) open the car door for them and walk them into the center," Yajima said.

She added that moving to another location isn't an option because the center doesn't have the money.

Hawaii News Now reached out to HCDA about Yajima's concerns. In a statement, the authority said it takes the situation "very seriously."

"We are committed to continuing to work with the state's coordinator on homelessness, social service agencies, the state sheriff and the Honolulu Police Department to address any problems while ensuring our park is maintained for the enjoyment of all members of the public," the statement continued.

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