City looks to convert barely-used safe house for abused women into homeless shelter

City eyes future of pricey safe house for abused women that's 'much like a prison'
Updated: Mar. 5, 2018 at 5:43 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the city prosecutor are in discussions over the future of a $5.5 million shelter for abuse victims that's been barely used since it opened in 2016, advocates say, because its tenants must follow strict rules that are impractical to impossible.

Caldwell wants the 20-room Makiki facility, which costs about $400,000 a year to operate, to be converted into a homeless shelter and he says it wouldn't require much work or approval.

"We have an asset," he said. "The Family Justice Center is just not being filled as we hoped it would have been and so that is the perfect place to house some of our homeless folks who really need it."

City Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro opened the Family Justice Center in November 2016, describing it as a one-stop shop for victims and a place where they can get services and a secure place to live.

But advocates criticized him for making those benefits conditional. In order to stay at shelter, victims have to be willing to testify against their abusers. They also aren't allowed to leave without an escort and the center is only open to single women.

"The city could make an enormous difference by modifying the design of the program so that it's not so much like a prison," said Nanci Kreidman, of the Domestic Violence Action Center.

She said her organization has referred victims there, but many refused to stay.

"They can't come and go as they please. They can't be in communication with people in their social network and all of that is to extract their cooperation," she said, adding that it can take months before the victim testifies and that means long stretches isolated from others.

The shelter's requirements contributed to Kaneshiro changing the name of the facility in 2017 to the Prosecutor's Safe House. The founders of the Family Justice Center concept say a shelter run by law enforcement does not serve victims but bullies them into testifying.

Currently, there are three people staying at the site, according to the Honolulu Prosecutor's Office.

In all of 2017, only 13 people sought help there, leaving most of the rooms empty.

The converted apartment building is also a focal point for the federal government, which is investigating Kaneshiro's office over the project.

Multiple witnesses connected to the center have been summoned to testify before a federal grand jury about questionable practices with the purchase and renovation of the building.

Advocates say there is a need for victims of human trafficking and assault and hope city leaders will find a way to balance the various needs.

"There are a lot of homeless survivors of domestic violence," Kreidman said.

Caldwell said that is a possibility.

"We're working with the prosecutor's office to put in folks we think would be suitable, who are right now on our streets and are homeless," he said. "It could be women, it could be those with families perhaps or children but we're looking at it. We really need to fill this site. It a shame, a real shame and a loss to the community with those units sitting empty for over a year."

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