This is the first in a series of articles that Ethnic Seattle is publishing in partnership with Crosscut’s #SeaHomeless, a day-long media blitz to highlight homelessness, bolster discussions about this local emergency, and—hopefully—find solutions along the way.
By Melissa Lin
June 28, 2017
While it’s well known that many who experience homelessness like to gather in the Chinatown-International District and residing neighborhoods, the intimate relationship between business owners in the area and the homeless population is not as often talked about.
Few know this better than Taylor Hoang, owner of the Pho Cyclo Café restaurants and the Executive Director of Ethnic Business Coalition (EBC), which is the parent non-profit of Ethnic Seattle. Hoang started her restaurant ventures in 2000 and founded EBC in 2014, but before then, her family was already firmly rooted in the community—Hoang’s mother, Lien Dang has owned the beloved Vietnamese Restaurant, Huong Binh in Ding How Center on S, Jackson Street since 1993. Hoang and Dang’s relationship with the homeless population in the Chinatown-International District is just one example that highlights the strong camaraderie felt between small business owners in the area and their fellow immigrants. We sat down with Hoang to learn more.
You’ve talked before about your mom’s relationship with homelessness in the area. Tell me about that again.
Sure. There is a lot of homeless Vietnamese and also just Asians in general in the Little Saigon area. There’s one particular gentleman that hangs out right in front of my mom’s restaurant all the time asking for food, asking for money. So my mom eventually started giving him food, giving him money, which she does to all the homeless folks that come to her restaurant on a regular basis—usually in the evening before she closes up. But this one particular gentleman hung out quite a bit. He started calling her “Mom” because she was giving him food and asking if there was any way that he could help her. And so she started having him run errands for her here and there. And she told him that if he wanted to continue to hang out at her place, he has to be presentable, he has to get all dressed—he has to do this and that. To get himself cleaned up, he started going to a community center to take showers, to change his clothes, and then he would come to the restaurant and she would provide him with food, with a facility to use the bathroom, to come in and drink water. And in exchange he would run little errands for her. She tried to keep him busy to keep him out of trouble and he’s doing really well now.
“[Small business owners] feel very compassionate toward what they see as their countrymen also going through a very difficult time and hardship”
And would you say that this story is unique?
I don’t think it’s unique. I think all the shop owners—my mom’s neighbors—have been very giving and very generous to the homeless population because, like I’ve said, they are very compassionate and feel very compassionate toward what they see as their countrymen also going through a very difficult time and hardship. So I think they’re very generous, and all of my mom’s [shop] neighbors in the evening give leftover food. On holidays they’ll get together and make food for the homeless.
Could you talk a bit about how cultural challenges and homelessness intersect?
For a lot of Asians, probably Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays of the year. That is a time that family gets together, celebrates the coming new year, partake in traditional food, traditional customs, and so forth. And for a lot of the homeless folks that we see in Little Saigon and also in the Chinatown-International District, that’s a time of the year that’s really difficult for them because they really don’t have anywhere to go, especially [not] culturally competent homeless facilities available for them to celebrate the holidays. I know that my mom last year, she went out and bought and packaged…close to thirty Lunar New Year care packages and food packages. She made meals, she cooked traditional food, and so forth to pass out to the homeless folks that she knew were of Asian descent. But then other folks showed up too, so she would just give that out as just good luck, but also as a way to give back to the community and also help them celebrate the holidays.
And why do you think that people don’t really know or talk about the relationship between the Chinatown-International District business owners and the homeless population?
Because I think it’s a little bit ingrained in their culture. I think Asian people are very giving so they just do it without a lot of fanfare. They don’t expect to get recognized. And it’s just part of community that they want to foster. I know my mom does it because she doesn’t like to see people go hungry. And when it comes to food and being generous, she’s really good at that.
What do you think are some of the most pressing issues for business owners when it comes to homelessness?
I think the pressing issue is around public safety. They feel a little bit hopeless to see the constant pressure of doing business and then on top of that having to deal with a homeless population that has nowhere to go that hangs out in front of their storefronts that is creating a situation where the patrons or customers feel unsafe to enter the area—to feel a need to shop or eat somewhere else where it might be safer. So it’s a lot of different issues that they have to deal with. But I think more so [the issue] is the perception from their customers. My mom knows a lot of the homeless folks that hang around her storefront and she knows that they are good people. But her customers showing up wouldn’t know that necessarily. So at the end of the day, if it’s having a public safety and also a perception effect on her business, then it pushes her to the point of not being able to make a profit or lose some customers. Having customer complaints is not good for business.
“I think small businesses are fairly supportive of the plight of homelessness in Seattle because a lot of the homeless folks are also of immigrant descent.”
What is your perception about the relationship between small businesses in this area and homelessness?
I think there’s a little bit of a tug-of-war and misunderstanding. I think small businesses are fairly supportive of the plight of homelessness in Seattle because a lot of the homeless folks are also of immigrant descent. A lot of AAPIs (Asian American and Pacific Islander) are left homeless, and a lot of small business owners came here, started out being homeless and having to find their own way to provide for their family, resources, and eventually opening their own business. They understand but they also are compassionate toward homelessness. But at the same time the homeless population does cause some public safety issues for the business, and so there is this sort of tug-of-war that I feel is happening. As much as [small business owners] want to support homelessness, they also want…law and order to help manage the public safety issues.
Read more at Crosscut’s #SeaHomeless landing page.