In a culture of family and achievement, Vietnamese homeless people feel like outcasts

Bargain shoppers emerged from a popular Little Saigon fruit shop with tote bags filled with pale brown longan and hairy red rambutan, barely glancing at Duc Tran’s dirty face.

Tran hovered near a doorway, hinting to passers-by that he was thirsty with a drink gesture and a finger to his throat. In Vietnamese, he asked “yours mua mi” — money for a bowl of noodles.

He was a car salesman until meth hunting took over his life.

For about five years, he’s been wandering past fabric stores and takeout restaurants in Little Saigon.

He is part of a motley group, many of whom lived through the devastation of the Vietnam War and came to the United States as refugees as teenagers. They converged on Little Saigon from the rest of the state and beyond, drawn by familiar foods and the ease of communicating in their native language.

Now they lie down on the sidewalks or in the alleys along Bolsa Avenue and other thoroughfares. They number about 20, which locals say is an increase since the start of the pandemic.

Oliver Nguyen, 28, lives on the streets of Little Saigon and hopes to make it as a singer.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Many cite mental illness or drugs as the reason they ended up on the streets.

In a culture rooted in family ties, professional success and a strong work ethic, they are special cases – unemployed, often estranged from loved ones, reduced to begging for dollars or banh mi sandwiches.

Shame can deepen their isolation.

“I realize that the Vietnamese want to be associated with success. They are ashamed of being poor. They avoid debt. Why would they stay in contact with us? said Charlie Duong, 55, who became homeless after depression left him unable to work as a manicurist.

Duong is too ashamed to seek help from his relatives and has lost contact with his children.

“Why would anyone want to know his father is like that?” he says of his eldest son, an architect.

For Vietnamese Americans shopping or working in Little Saigon, the poorest among them evoke a complex mix of emotions.

Southland Integrated Services social worker Ngoc Khanh Banh meets Tam Nguyen for the first time to share information.

Ngoc Khanh Banh of Southland Integrated Services, left, talks to Tam Nguyen about the services his agency provides to low-income people.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

In a tight-knit refugee community that has generally thrived after arriving in this country with nothing, the sight of fellow Vietnamese living on the streets may prompt judgment on how they ended up in this situation.

To start the Lunar New Year off on the right foot, some distribute money and food to the homeless.

Teresa Bui donates on her birthday. But her bosses at the restaurant where she works “ordered me not to give so much food because it’s becoming a habit”, she said. “People get lazy and don’t learn to take care of themselves.”

Tran, the homeless man outside the fruit shop, said Vietnamese religious groups sometimes stopped by with food. But, he said, “they really can’t devote a lot of time to changing our lives.”

“I thought, of course, that the refugees knew what it was like to be stranded,” he said. “Yet many of them are watching behind us.”

About 3% of Orange County’s more than 3,000 homeless people are Asian, according to a “at one point” count from May.

More than 40% of the county’s unprotected population has substance abuse issues and nearly 30% have mental health issues, according to the count.

Homeless men in an alley near Moran Street in the community of Little Saigon.

Homeless men in an alley near Moran Street in Little Saigon.

(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Westminster, the city that includes Little Saigon, cannot afford to fund housing for the homeless on its own, Councilor Kimberly Ho said. City officials are in talks with Fountain Valley and Garden Grove to join forces and build a temporary space with beds, showers and lockers.

“With the amount of [homeless] people grow up, I totally understand how business owners feel,” Ho said. “They think if you keep giving them money, they’ll come back. We have to find other solutions. »

The Commander of Westminster Police. Kevin MacCormick leads a homeless outreach unit, comprising two liaison officers and a civilian case manager, which attempts to connect people with social services and housing.

Tran says he hides from some workers, who “always ask the same questions.” He fears to “merge” with the government.

“They have too many rules. They’re looking for products for you,” Tran said, referring to drugs.

The food stamps, however, are a welcome addition for Tran and some of Little Saigon’s other homeless people. Their favorite day of the month is when they get paid and can stock up on jasmine rice, fish sauce and salt.

Sometimes they barter or resell groceries for valuable items such as a Bunsen burner, which they use to cook dishes such as vegetable soup over rice.

A few times a year, Tran’s parents walk around looking for him to give him some money. He was unable to overcome his drug addiction, he said.

“Some days I desperately need help,” he said, wiping his cheek on a sweatshirt that hadn’t been washed for more than a month. “Some days I think not.”

Councilman Tai Do, who as a Long Beach police officer worked for years with street people, said the city needs to provide housing and mental health assistance, even though some people would not accept help.

Westminster’s homeless outreach team is understaffed, Councilor Carlos Manzo said. Even as the city faces staff cuts and possible bankruptcy, Manzo and others are scrambling to hire at least one more police officer for the team, through a separate funding source.

Duong, the former manicurist, slept for months in an abandoned car in an alley behind warehouses.

Last spring, he found a large “Janet Nguyen for State Senate” poster and used it as a shadow, balancing it above the car and a faded couch.

One day around 1 p.m., he emerged from his shelter, quickly pulling on some pants and donning his ubiquitous cowboy hat.

He had just woken up. He sleeps odd hours because he and his friends take turns guarding against thieves, he said.

They were ‘jumped’ a handful of times after dark,” he added, the assailants brandishing knives and fleeing with cash.

Duong, who came to the United States when he was in his twenties, said he was once married to the daughter of a successful Vietnamese restaurant family in suburban Chicago.

While vacationing in Vietnam, he dated several women, he said, which led to his wife divorcing him. He lost custody of his son and moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to work on a meat assembly line, he said.

In California in 1994, he trained to become a manicurist. He remarried and had other children. But her depression struck again, and customers complained about her mistakes.

He couldn’t keep a job and resorted to “living on the outside”, he said.

“Some people do drugs. Some people are not,” he said. “We don’t have big plans. We live in the moment and we want to stay safe.

Jenny Nguyen moves between storefronts with a shady place to sit, holding several plastic bags full of shabby shoes and brimmed hats.

She came to Arizona from Vietnam when she was a high school student. What she described as “fragile” mental health forced her to “quit” her job at a ceramics factory, she said.

“I don’t expect people to understand my situation,” said Nguyen, 52.

Mental health is often a taboo subject in immigrant families, who may be ill-equipped to handle a struggling parent, said Ngoc Khanh Banh, manager of Southland Integrated Services, which provides food and mental health services to people with low revenue.

“You would think that family members welcome them – no questions asked – but in reality, they don’t,” Banh said.

Banh recently visited the homeless in Little Saigon for the first time.

“I’m not here to judge,” she told local resident Tam Nguyen. “I am here to listen. Please tell me what emergencies you have, and we will try to help you.

Nguyen, 54, has lived on the streets for about 15 years and is believed to be Little Saigon’s oldest homeless resident.

Like many “Amerasians” born to Vietnamese women and American servicemen, he was raised by his mother in Vietnam, without knowing his white father.

He came to the United States hoping to connect with his father’s family, but had no luck reuniting with them. He started sleeping rough after running out of money, he said.

Often his bedroom is a battered chocolate-colored Honda. He cuts his hair, repairs scrapped bikes to resell, washes cars and sweeps the sidewalk in front of shops for change.

“We risk our lives on the streets,” he said, “I also think medical situations are risky. I only depend on myself.

Yet he can be generous to others in the same situation.

When Oliver Nguyen, 28, showed up in Little Saigon, Tam Nguyen offered soda, clothes and the back seat of his car as a place to sleep.

Young Nguyen asks “Uncle Tam” for survival tips and bike tools. A graduate of a high school in Torrance, he struggled with crystal meth and other drugs. His mother repeatedly sent him to rehab. After his death, he found himself on the street a year and a half ago.

He does odd jobs to save money. Tattoos on the right side of his face say “Love one another” and “Good fortune” in Chinese characters.

His family and friends have always praised his deep voice and he still dreams of becoming a musician.

A friend he met on Craigslist recently helped him produce a demo called “Let Love Nguyen” – a play on his last name, pronounced “Win”.

“Dear Mom, I can’t let your life die in vain. I have to win. Your son, Oliver,” he wrote in a notebook he took everywhere.