Thursday, July 17, 2008

Homeless Asians

The other evening, a dinner conversation about race led to admission of stereotypes we held about other people. As an Asian I confessed my surprise at encountering a homeless Asian man while volunteering at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in New York . It is a notion shared by an individual who posted in Yahoo Answers:

How come we hardly see and asian or mexican homelesses? When I travel the streets or something i normally only see white and black people as homelesses But i also go around the asian community and i only saw 1 asian homeless so far and i think 2 mexican homelesses In La i saw alot of black homelesses too

The “best” answer highlighted is one I would have given myself: we take care of our own.

… I believe that homelessness is less pronounced among Asian and Hispanic communities simply because both cultures value the family very highly and when times get tough for someone, they are more likely to step up to the plate to be there for their family member and help them out. Too bad we can't all be like that.

I would add that “face” is very important to Asians. Laurence Hsin Yang of Columbia University, explains that the Chinese and by extension, Asian, concept of face is integral to its culture. He writes that one’s moral standing and place is society is contingent upon upholding personal and communal obligations. An individual loses face by not meeting her responsibilities, in this case, taking care of indigent family members. As a community, we lose face when we allow our own to become homeless.

Yet there are homeless Asians. Isabelle Hsu reports in the Pacific News Service that in San Francisco alone there are approximately 6,000 plus people living in the streets. She quickly adds that this is a very rough estimate. Ed Jew (the only Chinese American on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s committee to end chronic homelessness) explains that the official estimate of Asian homelessness is probably low because of cultural sensitivities. It is also a matter of saving face: homeless Asians refuse to go to shelters and admit to their homelessness.

The lives of two men serve as examples. Robert Chan is a 38 year old immigrant from Vietnam who had lost his wallet and ID. Moreover, he had strained relations with his sister. Without proper identification, relations and money, he has no choice but to live in the streets. Michael Sao, a Laotian immigrant has been in the country much longer than Chan. He moved to San Francisco in the late eighties and has been working in restaurants until a back injury put him out of a job two years ago. At first he tried staying in homeless shelters, but the violence and conflict made him swear he would never go back again.

Homelessness is a problem faced by all racial groups. In its fact sheet Who is Homeless?, the National Coalition for the Homeless includes a 2004 survey of 27 cities which found that the homeless population was 49% African American, 35% Caucasian, 13% Hispanic, 2% Native American, and 1% Asian. The paper also cites studies which show that single homeless adults are more likely to be male than female. Moreover, a 2005 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that single men comprised 51% of the homeless population and single women comprised 17%.

In National Estimates of Homelessness, the Coalition estimates the homeless population to number approximately 3.5 million, with 1.35 million of them children. It also cites research which reveals that about 1% of the U.S. population experiences homelessness each year.

With the economy in a recession, these figures can only get worse.

Photo: homeless in SF by Kieran Ridge & Hiromi Oda

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