Wednesday, December 5, 2001

Community Health Outreach workers Monica Macri, left, and Gabriella Moreno sat in a van Friday afternoon to dispense clean needles, condoms and information to drug addicts and prostitutes in the downtown area.

Needle program
frustrates some
Chinatown residents

Some feel the effort to clean up
drug users and prostitututes
is being hampered

By Lisa Asato

The gates are now closed around Chinatown's Kukui Health Building, the bathrooms are locked and the downstairs water fountain has been removed -- actions to deal with prostitutes and drug users along North Kukui Street.

But while local, state and federal officials try to crack down on drugs and prostitution in the designated Weed & Seed area, a state program is handing out condoms and sterile needles there, raising some questions from the Downtown Neighborhood Board.

"I think it's curious, but I need to see what's going on with this," said Lynne Matusow, chairwoman of the neighborhood board, which takes up the matter tomorrow. "It doesn't make sense, we're cleaning up the area ... we're trying to clear up prostitution and this is bringing the type of people they're trying to get out."

Condom and needle program

What: Downtown Neighborhood Board meeting

When: 7 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Pauahi Community Center at 171 N. Pauahi St.

The Community Health Outreach Worker Project to Prevent AIDS, contracted by the state Department of Health to provide sterile needles, condoms and drug education, distributes services from a van on Kukui Street, near Nuuanu Avenue, just outside Hosoi Garden Mortuary, six days a week.

Suzette Smetka, CHOW's executive director, said Chinatown is the busiest site. She said 43 percent of visitors to the syringe-exchange program live or sleep in Kalihi-Palama or downtown.

"Therefore to prevent HIV and also the transmission of other blood-borne pathogens, especially hepatitis, we have to be located in this area," she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Constance Hassell said Weed & Seed emphasizes both weeding out drugs and seeding and "needle exchange is certainly part of the seed effort -- prevention and intervention."

Hassell emphasized that the U.S. Attorney's Office did not take a position on whether the program was appropriate for the Weed & Seed district, but said it is up to the community to decide what programs are needed in its neighborhood.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Les Hite of the Honolulu Police Department said the two programs are at odds. "We're working against each other because we're saying ... we're going to address (drug crimes) but yet you're still providing the paraphernalia I need to use the drugs."

Hite and Matusow suggested running the program out of the Department of Health on Punchbowl Street.

"Basically the community should be working with us and not against us because we're providing a critical public-health service for the community. We'd be happy to talk about a better location," Smetka said, adding that the Chinatown location was selected because it was discreet.

But it's not discreet enough for Kukui Plaza resident Dolores Mollring, who said the needle-exchange program is valuable, but she doesn't like that it's taking place in the Weed & Seed area and so close to residential complexes.

Don Weisman, communications director for American Heart Association on the second floor of the Kukui Health Building, said drugs and prostitution are occurring in the area.

He said locks on bathroom doors were put on "because people were using them for bathing and who knows what else."

Cindy Sharp, also of the Heart Association, said running the needle-exchange program in Chinatown doesn't help.

"It's like saying here's the clean needles so go and do your drugs and here's the condom so continue the prostitution because we're not going to condemn you for it."

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