In Midst Of COVID-19, Medical Team Heals Wounds In Chinatown

Jul 13, 2020

Honolulu is using federal COVID-19 funds to clean up Chinatown and boost businesses that are hurting without downtown office workers. On Saturday, to help boost business, the city opened Hotel Street for pedestrians, bicyclists and dining on the sidewalk. But challenges remain for the neighborhood’s future. 

Openings at Manifest draw a contemporary crowd. The bar has shown over a hundred artists in their ten years in business.
Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

On a sunny Friday morning, Dr. Christina Wang is working on River Street in Chinatown. She’s been providing health outreach on the street, twice a week for the last five years. It’s a project of the Hawai’i Health and Harm Reduction Center, or H3RC. The shady stone wall along Nu'uanu Stream has become a gathering place.

"Our real goal is to connect with people where they are," says Wang. "That's why we go to where they live and really see what is their prioroity for  health care right now. A lot of times its wound care because it's something that's acute and that they physically see that they need." 

Often, it's scrapes or cuts that can linger. Wound care in a hospital emergency setting can average $1,500 a visit, compared to about $20 for service on the street like this.

"Early on into the COVID crisis, we were one of the only people directly on the street," says Wang. "And we saw increase in food scarcity, difficulty with hygiene because some of the bathrooms closed for a period of time -- the Hygiene Center had to make some provisions, of course. And we noticed people had trouble getting even clothing, because  some of the places they would go were not open for them. We really saw the gamut of basic needs not being met early on."

Along the river, Royce was in a wheel chair. Her shin was mottled reddish and opened in a wide gash -- it's deep, too, darkened and curling around the edges. This is not a new problem.

Wang gently unwraps the gauze from Royce's shin, saying, "She writes beautiful poems. Miss Royce is an excellent teacher of her wound care. She's kind of our outreach nurse when we're not out here."

I asked Royce, what's the hardest thing about taking care of a wound out here?

"Not getting your backpack ripped off with the supplies," Royce said, without hesitation.

"The ability to survive out here is a constant stressor," according to Wang. "If you can imagine not knowing  where your next meal or your water or your shower is going to come from. Even though we have a hygiene center, that's worlds away for these folks down here who wouldn't be able to walk to A'ala Park where we just were."

Wang says some people have severe depression where you feel you can't move from your spot. 

"You're worried about your belongings, you wouldn't have anybody to watch them. Some people are really stuck in their spot because they're dependent on resources in their area, that may include things like drugs and alcohol."

Wang says bartering, sex work, and trading government benefits, are part of the underground economy.  

One resounding complaint recently has been an increase in excrement on the sidewalks, and Wang is concerned about hepatitis A transmission. The increase is not really a mystery.

"If you told me right now, we have to stop doing outreach and go to the bathroom, I would say we have to go beg a restaurant or go pull out cash to use the restroom. I wish I had a better answer for you."

A bone thin man tipped and slid off his wheelchair into Hotel Street; Wang and her team rushed over to help.

Just up Hotel Street, past Nu'uanu Avenue, Nicole Reid and her husband Brandon run the essential Manifest Art and Whiskey Bar on Hotel Street. 

"There's homeless people in doorways again," says Nicole Reid, "Defecating, trash everywhere, and there's only so much the police can do. They're not mental health advocates by any stretch."

Reid maintains Honolulu's homeless problem is the result of unaffordable housing. Period. And halfway measures only result in people on the street. Reid says they need to make $85,000 a month to stay in business, and that has been rough without the downtown office crowd -- and everybody else.   

"The future I think will be based on who's around," says Reid. "I hope we're a part of it, but if not, you know one thing that's true about this area is Chinatown has been in business and it's continued to find people that want to try an idea. They will determine what the next phase of this community looks like."

Meanwhile, in an unexpected turn, COVID-19 funds for health and sanitation are being used for community-friendly initiatives. Power washing and disinfecting sidewalks has started, and brighter lights are coming to Kekaulike Mall. City funded security guards are joining private efforts patroling  in the area from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. That's something businesses have been requesting for years.

Check out the six new murals  in Chinatown, including a new work near Rangoon on Nu'uanu. There's also  a mural by Corey Taum going in at New Life Church on Smith Street.