Underbelly of Chinatown Homeless Exposed During Coronavirus Shutdown

Posted on: April 29th, 2020 at 5:05 am by

Photo: Karlin Chan

With Chinatown largely obeying the stay-at-home directives of Governor Cuomo and the Mayor de Blasio, and only venturing out for essentials, an unseen side of the neighborhood has emerged.

No longer cloaked on the crowded streets, and without refuge to “stay at home,” the sight of homeless Chinese wandering Chinatown streets greet me daily.

In general, Chinese migrant men across the country who earn wages for family in China have been financially wounded due to farm and restaurant closures. During better times, restaurant workers on the outskirts of Chinatown would split the cost of a cheap motel room among 3 or 4 individuals to save money. But now those jobs and income are gone.

The history of Chinese migrant restaurant workers dates back decades to the bachelor society of the early Chinatowns. Those restaurateurs venturing outside the structured Chinatowns into suburban areas or smaller cities would employ migrant chefs who travelled from city to city with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the tools of the trade (kitchen knives), a trend which continues to this day. Workers between jobs, or taking “breaks,” would travel to a city where a Chinatown existed to seek out friends or just to be among their own. The lucky ones stayed with friends, while others would spend the night in a rented armchair in an internet bar’s backroom.  But since the non-essential business and public gathering bans went into effect, these cafes, bakeries, and casinos have closed, leaving these “homeless” in the lurch. Wandering the streets.

Photo: Karlin Chan

Asians are traditionally viewed as hardworking, and even affluent, in mainstream society. In fact a large percentage are living below the poverty line and suffer in silence. Some who have lost their homes are now on the streets, fearing the city’s shelter system which is notoriously prone to violence and drugs.

One such case is an elderly woman and her daughter living in a major transportation hub in Manhattan whom I decided to contact after seeing an online article.  In the weeks since our first encounter, we have been providing food and personal hygiene items and established enough trust & rapport to convince them to go into a voucher system. Yet there is no guarantee if they will actually follow through when a caseworker is present.

NYC’s homeless Asian population has become highly visible these days of Covid-19 but I wonder if any of the nonprofits or city agencies have bilingual outreach workers and staff to understand their needs.  Being homeless on the streets is rough for every homeless person but being homeless and Asian during Covid-19 when anti-Asian sentiment is high is a disaster waiting to happen.

We do not want to ever see a repeat of what occured around Chatham Square last October, when four homeless men were bludgeoned to death while sleeping.

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