Kathy Chin Leong
Executive Director of Chinatown Community Development Center
How has the virus changed Chinatown? We have seen lines during food pantry giveaways. There are still dangerous gathering situations. As a community, they are doing their best to keep safe. No outbreak that we know of at this point. We are still preparing for the worst case scenario. How has it changed the nature of your organization? It is challenging right now. Most of how we learn about the virus cases is self-reporting. Residents have to call us, and we learn about it that way. If you have families in households not connected to a city institution or non-profit, you don’t hear about it. The volunteer recruitment has been significant, there is no additional hired labor for us.
How has the virus changed Chinatown? We have seen lines during food pantry giveaways. There are still dangerous gathering situations. As a community, they are doing their best to keep safe. No outbreak that we know of at this point. We are still preparing for the worst case scenario. How has it changed the nature of your organization? It is challenging right now. Most of how we learn about the virus cases is self-reporting. Residents have to call us, and we learn about it that way. If you have families in households not connected to a city institution or non-profit, you don’t hear about it. The volunteer recruitment has been significant, there is no additional hired labor for us. It has been challenging to honor SIP while keeping our organization running. We do a lot of video conferencing. The staff thrive on serving people and knowing they cannot is hard. In general, as with the rest of the world, we pivoted to use more social media and WeChat since it is popular in Chinese Community. We are doing telephone wellness checks in the SROs. We are continuing to keep our doors open for certain services. We spent a week reconfiguring our offices and that took quite a bit of time and energy. Now we have large, clean, and uncluttered open spaces and the ability for people to distance. How has it impacted those you serve? The SRO residents are staying in their rooms more than in the past. It is like a little village in a little community. Many times, they keep their doors open, but now there is less socializing in the hallways. There’s a lot more yelling back and forth between rooms. We are trying to acquire masks and distribute them weekly. How has this impacted you personally? It is interesting. I do not see people in person as much. I actually feel extremely proud to be a part of a moment where I can witness our team and community step up to the occasion. Watching our team launch this food program, and not waiver serving the community in dangerous times, and even endangering their own health is really inspiring. What will it take for Chinatown to recover? That is the million dollar question. There has to be testing, and it has to be prevalent. Everyone’s employees, staff, and customers have to be covid-free and that is super critical. I am concerned about businesses being able to keep their doors open. At first, we were so excited about the Paycheck Protection Program, and it was a massive letdown. Out of the 50 non-profits that I know of which applied, literally only seven entities got it. And at this juncture, if there’s no public assistance, lots of businesses will fail; residents will not be able to pay rent. Mass evictions will be extremely challenging. There really has to be a massive federal assistance program that prioritizes immigrant communities. The potential is accelerated gentrification in Chinatown, and that is a threat. It is really worrisome; it is an uphill battle. Second Interview The new executive director of the Chinese Community Development Center, talks about the SRO community and what CCDC is doing to assist its renters, mainly Chinese elderly and immigrant families, during the pandemic. What are your priorities right now? Our SRO residents. We looked at the issue in early February as we were getting more news about what was happening in China. We were concerned immediately about SROs and the lack of private restrooms and public kitchens. How do you self- quarantine in rooms that are only 80 square feet? What did CCDC do about these issues? Very early, we started installing hand sanitizer machines on every floor. And we also doubled or tripled the janitorial services in these buildings. We retrained our cleaning staff to pay more attention to doorknobs, rails, surfaces. We scheduled twice-a-day, and even in three-times-a-day cleanings in larger buildings. We had to keep common areas as clean as possible. We did advocacy work. We really had to get the City’s attention. We wanted SROs to have the same level of priority as other vulnerable populations. And we got passage of the SRO sanitation legislation. The city paid for the program that provides owners with supplies for cleaning and hand sanitizer. We got professional cleaning services to go to the SRO buildings at no cost to the owners. What happened after the official shelter-in-place policy hit Chinatown? For CCDC, it was an incredible challenge. We are deemed as an essential business since we operate and run residential buildings. From the beginning, we decided to stay in operation. Our counseling clinics stayed open. Seniors come in, document heavy. These may be eviction documents, and we have to see the documents in person. We have reconfigured the offices and provide social distancing. We have a hotline for phone counseling. What else is CCDC tackling to aid Chinatown SRO inhabitants during the pandemic? Our other coronavirus response was launching Feed and Fuel Chinatown. Before, we ran a couple of food pantries, and, on the whole, we weren’t about food security. It became more and more of a concern. Anyone in a private SRO has a shared kitchen, and cooking becomes a dangerous activity. We were getting complaints from families because there was more and more competition for kitchen use happening. You have massive unemployment of restaurant workers (many who live in SROs); and now people are home all day and have no work; there’s more pressure on the kitchen. The second week of shelter-in-place we launched Feed and Fuel Chinatown, a food program; and we went from zero meals to delivery and paying for 1,600 meals a day; and then to 2, 000 meals a day, a significant ramp up. It is a hot meal in a to-go container. What are some of the features of the Feed and Fuel program? In the Senior Meal Delivery program, seniors in the CCDC-owned SROs where we partner with Self-Help for the Elderly, we send staff to coordinate the 160 volunteers a week to package and deliver the food. About 30-40 people a day do this, and we serve 300 elderly in CCDC-owned SROs five days a week. The second program is the Community Meal Take-Out program, where we offer meals for CCDC-SRO families, about 250 families. We fundraised to reopen New Asia restaurant, and now we have ramped up to 800 meals a day five days a week; families come in and pick up 3-4 meals, one for each person in the household. We handle groups of 50 at a time. Someone monitors the line (for social distancing) and checks people off with a number to keep people honest. What about the residents who live in SROs not owned by CCDC? We are working with Far East Café and other restaurants to serve some 300-600 meals to public housing seniors in Chinatown; and we offer door-to-door delivery. Under the Voucher Meal Takeout Program, we have expanded to offering more than 600 meals to those living in SROs (non-CCDC). We work with more than 30 restaurants and buy meal vouchers from them. We distribute vouchers to hundreds of residents who can pick up meals themselves. How have you educated residents about the coronavirus? It has literally come from the community as a whole. The Chinese newspaper, radio, and TV and did a tremendous job covering it early on and in the January period to make everyone aware. By late February, they told everyone to take precautions. The Chinese Hospital and health clinic were telling everyone to be washing their hands. By the time SIP order hit, the community knew to stay safe. We have made and distributed flyers. What kind of communication do you have with residents currently? We do phone call wellness checks; at the beginning, we called up every single resident. By the time we called them, they were aware. We have 3,200 units so that’s more than 3,000 telephone calls. We did a vulnerability assessment and tried to assess those who are highly vulnerable. We pay more attention to them and try to place them with the right referrals.