Homeless Chinese: Uncounted and Invisible

World Journal, News Feature, Isabelle Hsu, Translated by Eugenia Chien Posted: Nov 03, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO -- On a cold, crisp, typical San Francisco morning, Robert Chan, 38, sat on a bench in Chinatown’s Portsmouth Square with a pair of Marriott Hotel slippers on his feet. Chan is a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam who lost his wallet and ID on the bus two months ago. He had been staying at his sister’s house, but because he had not found a job for weeks, and perhaps for reasons he didn’t want to say, his sister kicked him out of her house, effectively starting Chan’s life as a homeless person in San Francisco.

Chan is one of the uncounted Chinese among San Francisco’s 6,000 plus homeless population. The homeless may come from varying backgrounds but they share the same daily struggle with violence and survival. The Urban Institute estimates that there are 450,000 to 850,000 homeless people in the United States. San Francisco has an estimated 6,248 homeless people, the third highest concentration of homeless in the country. According to the Urban Institute, 1.4 percent of San Francisco’s homeless are Asian, 36.4 percent is African American, and 31.5 percent is white.

Ed Jew, the only Chinese American on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s committee to end chronic homelessness, said that because of cultural sensitivities, Chinese homeless often do not admit their situation and refuse to go to homeless shelters. As a result, the official estimate of Asian homelessness is probably low, Jew said.

For Chan, lessons of survival came the hard way: everything he owned was stolen while he was on the street. With no clothing, no address, and no phone number, Chan stood in line for three or four hours at the homeless shelter everyday to sleep and shower. At the shelter, Chan’s shoes were stolen when he took them off to sleep. This was his first lesson as a homeless person, he says, and the reason why he was sitting in Portsmouth Square with a pair of Marriott Hotel slippers.

Being homeless is made even more difficult by racial conflicts. The scuffle that often happens between blacks and whites at the homeless shelter is keeping him away, Chan said. He only goes to the homeless shelter if he has to shower or sleep. Racial violence notwithstanding, without shoes, Chan’s daily trip from Chinatown to the homeless shelter on Fell street is nearly impossible.

At the homeless shelter, nurse Yolanda, who declined to give her last name, is frank about the risks of her job. The police who patrol the shelter have shifts longer than officers who patrol outside. On her break, Yolanda doesn’t dare to go outside for some fresh air in case something erupts inside. She is even more nervous when she has the graveyard shift. Yolanda said that everything from sheets, towels, and clothing is lacking in the shelter. When the homeless shower in the shelter, it is almost pointless because they would have to put their dirty clothes back on, she says. Three months ago, all the towels in the shelter were stolen, and the shelter had not been able to replace them. So, for months, the homeless who shower at the shelter had to get dressed while still wet from the shower.

San Francisco has 10 homeless shelters and four free kitchens. The Chinatown North Beach Mental Health Services on Filbert Street provides help in Mandarin and Cantonese.

As the morning wore on, the scene at Portsmouth Square is busier with the addition of Michael Sao, 52, a lanky Chinese man. Sao, a Laotian Chinese immigrant, had attended high school in Taiwan and lived in Japan and other cities in the United States. He landed in San Francisco 20 years ago and was working in restaurants until a back injury put him out of a job two years ago. Sao had been living on Social Security and tried staying in a homeless shelter, but the violence and conflict in the homeless shelters made him swear he would never go back again.

When Sao is tired, he spends $12 on a bus ticket to go to a casino. He sleeps on the bus for six or seven hours on the way to the casino. When he arrives, the casino gives each person a $25 voucher. Instead of using the voucher to gamble, Sao and other homeless people on the bus pool together their vouchers to get a room at the hotel where they can shower and sleep. Sao says that using casino vouchers to solve the sleeping/showering problem is common, and more than 10 Chinese homeless people he knows does this.

Sao has a younger sister who graduated from a prestigious college in Taiwan and settled in Chicago with her doctor husband, and two sisters who live in Japan. But his life is so far from theirs that they have stopped keeping in touch with him.

Sao has lost many of his teeth from not having health insurance, but he stressed that he’s perfectly healthy, except for his back pain. He said that he has already given up looking for a job to sustain himself. But when he sees other homeless people in their 40s, he says he feels regret for them. He says he tells them to not give up, and that social workers need to “rescue people who still have hope.”

Sao waves a hand to warn a reporter to stay away from another homeless Chinese man who seemed mentally disturbed. The chill in the air is dispersing away, but the chill of the uncertain future of the homeless stays frozen in the air.

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