Even a short trip to the grocery store or visiting a local center with hot-meal services can mean racist harassment – or worse.
February 1, 2022
By Amy Yee
Asian-American seniors like Derek Tang, a 68-year-old refugee from Cambodia, typically go to Homecrest Community Services in Brooklyn to socialize, have lunch and maybe play mahjong. But now Homecrest is also offering safety webinars and distributing panic alarms so Tang and other patrons can feel more secure stepping out of their homes.
Tang hasn’t been employed since suffering a heart attack in 2006. His wife was working in an Asian grocery store, but the shop closed during the pandemic. That makes the meals served by Homecrest a vital lifeline. So he still needs to get himself there, despite concerns about safety. One member of the center, an 89-year-old Chinese-Americanwoman, was lit on fire near her home in Brooklyn in the summer of 2020. Tang, a genocide survivor, took Homecrest’s online class and studied pamphlets. He’s vigilant when he leaves home.
“Always be careful,” Tang said.
A surge in anti-Asian hate crime across the U.S. has made the most vulnerable in the community, especially seniors, more afraid to leave their homes. For the low income, that can translate to worsening hunger. Adults inAsian households were twice as likely to report not having enough to eat because of fear of going out than their White counterparts, a government analysis showed last year.
Even a trip to the grocery store or visiting a local center with a hot-meal service can mean racist harassment — or worse.
In 2020, 84-year-old Rong Xin Liao was kicked in the chest in his walker on a San Francisco street. In April, an attacker in New York stomped on the head of 61-year-old Yao Pan Ma, who was collecting cans. He died on Dec. 31. Last May, two senior Asian women were stabbed at a bus stop in downtown San Francisco after their afternoon shopping.
In New York City alone, hate incidents against Asians surged 361% in 2021 to 129, according to police department data through early December. And that number is likely underreported because of language and cultural barriers.
“Many seniors literally locked themselves inside their homes and did not want to venture out at all,” said Anni Chung, president of Self-Help for the Elderly, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that serves the Asian community.
Of course, not allAsian-Americans are overly concerned with safety, but the jump in hate crimes has sent ripples through the community. This January, Homecrest’s senior center was vandalized or targeted several times. In one incident, rocks smashed through windows during a staff meeting, said Don Lee, chairperson. In another, a man entered the center and shouted racial slurs.
Afraid to Go Out
A report from the U.S. Census Bureau published in August showed that 37% of non-Hispanic adults in Asian households that didn’t have enough to eat cited that they were “afraid to go or didn’t want to go out to buy food,” compared with 17% of non-Hispanic White families. The agency has since stopped collecting this data in the same way.
Findings from the 2020 California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) suggest that among Asian adults, unfair treatment due to race or ethnicity played a bigger role in food insecurity than for the overall California population.
Among Asians, those reporting unfair treatment because of race or ethnicity experienced food insecurity at 1.5 times the rate than those not treated unfairly, according to CHIS, which is conducted by UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research and is the country’s largest statewide health survey. The CHIS is done online or by phone in several Asian languages: Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog, in addition to English and Spanish.
Official figures can also gloss over the tremendous obstacles lower-income Asians face, especially seniors who sometimes struggle with limited mobility and using public transportation. Language barriers make it harder to access English-based food aid, like local pantries and meal services. And cultural norms, along with fears over immigration status, can discourage use of government programs.
Income inequality within the community is also stark, with distribution of income among Asians ranking as the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups, according to a 2018 analysis from Pew Research Center.
The popular misconception that Asian Americans are well-off is “a kind of Asian myth,” said Helen Ahn, director for Older Adult Centers at Korean Community Services of Metropolitan New York. KCS serves 850 Korean meals each day, up from 700 pre-pandemic.Most of the group’s senior members are on Medicaid and face food insecurity, she said, adding that high rents and lack of senior affordable housing are pushing them toward poverty.
Asian seniors are the fastest-growing segment of the elderly population in New York City, according to a report from AARP and Asian American Federation.
Soon Ja Lee, 77, commutes 1.5 hours to KCS’s Queens center every weekday by subway. Both the Korean food and community there are lifelines after her husband passed away. The pandemic has only exacerbated her stress and isolation. She can’t carry groceries to her fifth-floor apartment in a Queens public-housing building because the elevator has been broken for months.
“Without KCS senior center, I would want to die,” said Lee as she broke down crying.
During its pandemic peak, Self-Help for the Elderly saw a surge in demand for its meals. It was distributing more than 5,000 meals per day. That figure has since dropped to about 2,500, but it’s still up from 1,500 pre-Covid.
To meet the demand, Self-Help volunteer Jeanie Lee recruited 10 of her friends to deliver meals. This January, she also started helping Asian seniors install Ring home security cameras donated by the company. Her 93-year-old father lives in San Francisco’s Richmond district, known for itslarge Asian population. Lee doesn’t like him even going for a walk in the neighborhood.
“It’s difficult. People are too scared to go out,” said 62-year-old Lee. “Seniors are absolutely dependent on meals” getting delivered, she said.
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