A Grassroots Chinatown Group Looks Out For Its Seniors

A volunteer delivered a supply bag under social distancing guidelines. (Sophat Phea/CCED Organizer )

On a recent afternoon, 75-year-old Liandi Cai was sitting in her home in Lincoln Heights, when she was startled by a loud noise in her yard. Something had landed there, but she didn't know what. "It's coronavirus!" she exclaimed.

Actually, it was a package of supplies, including a roll of paper towels, a bottle of hand sanitizer, bars of soap and a bag of jasmine rice. It had been thrown over the gate by two volunteers.

When I spoke to her by phone on Friday, Cai said she was relieved and happy to get the package, especially the hand sanitizer.

Cai speaks a Cantonese dialect called Taishanese; her granddaughter, Cindy Lei translated. "A lot of seniors don't keep hand sanitizer around," Cai said. "But now we need it. So that was really helpful knowing that someone out there cares for you and that you're not gonna be abandoned during this time."

Over the phone, Lei told me her family been expecting the package.

A junior at Alhambra Lincoln High School, she lives with her parents and grandparents in Chinatown, and works as an organizer with the Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA), a youth leadership group that serves low-income families in Chinatown. SEACA, she explained, has partnered with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) and Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association to collect funds for food, care packages and financial support for Chinatown and Lincoln Heights elders as well as members in critical need. There are plenty in Chinatown who meet that criteria.

In a UCLA report based on 2010 census data and published in 2013, Chinatown's population was 15,907; nearly a quarter of its population was age 65 or over. For comparison, seniors in Los Angeles County made up about 11% of the population at the time.

What's more, while the median income in Los Angeles County is approximately $56,000, it's just $19,500 in Chinatown, where gentrification is driving up rents, and where many seniors get by on fixed incomes, living alone under threat of eviction.

Sissy Trinh is the executive director of SEACA, where she has worked for 18 years. When the "Safer at Home" orders went into effect, she immediately worried about the community's seniors, a cohort that tends to shop on an as-needed basis, often on foot, in the few dozen square blocks in and around Chinatown or Lincoln Heights.

One of the volunteers assembling the supply bags. (Sophat Phea/CCED Organizer)

So she and SEACA's board members set aside about $10,000 of their budget for pandemic relief. Normally, she said, that money would go towards events or campaigns.

"We're not a social service agency that's going to get reimbursed by the government," Trinh said. "It's a financial risk. But the community's needs are greater than our long term stability."

As of today, the group has delivered 490 packages of supplies, everything from soap to rice.

CORONAVIRUS HASSLES, MAGNIFIED

While a well-spent $10,000 can help stock a lot of pantries and medicine cabinets, supplies aren't easy to come by. Trinh described the process of bulk-buying as a "nightmare."

"The normal sources of where you would buy these types of items were all limiting everybody to two items at a time," she said. "And even then, they didn't necessarily have the supplies. I had to get really creative about different sources and places where you could get supplies."

For example, Trinh reached out to a friend who owns a wine shop to ask him if any of his friends who own distilleries could make hand sanitizer. (Alas, they couldn't.) She spent contacted friends in the service industry who had access to wholesalers, and managed to get a corporate account with a distributor that normally services restaurants. With so many restaurants closed, she's been able to buy surplus soap and paper.

Then, she waits. Deliveries that usually take a day or two, she said, can take a week or more to arrive.

The next challenge is putting the packages together.

SEACA's office, on Broadway, in the heart of Chinatown, can normally hold 20 to 25 people; but with social distancing, the maximum number is four. "We're physically constrained by the number of people we can have in our office helping assemble packages," she said, laughing. "I spend a lot of time yelling at people: Six feet! Six feet!'"

Then there are deliveries: Knock, set package down, step back from the door, and make sure the recipient opens it.

Trinh knows she can't prevent transmission of the coronavirus. But, she told me, by practicing the social distancing guidelines and taking preventive measures such as wearing scarfs as masks, "We can minimize exposure and risk."

Mei Wong giving a speech at one of CCED's events. (Lucy Truong/CCED Volunteer)

One recipient of a SEACA care package over the weekend was Sharon Cheung, a 74-year-old who lives alone in a low-income apartment in Chinatown. By phone, she told me her rent just went up $40, to $743. For a senior living on about $960 a month of social security, the increase is burdensome.

She told me the social security agency rejected her disability benefit application recently; the agency believes that her disability is temporary. Cheung said she wants to appeal. But government agencies are closed and she doesn't have a computer, so all she can do is send registered letters and hope for the best.

The package of basics from SEACA won't solve all her problems, she said, but she found it heartening to know she's not alone, or forgotten.

"It's not about how much help I get with this package of supplies," she told me in Mandarin. "It makes me feel there is still some warmness in the world."

Mei Wong, who is 68 years old, told me she felt equally grateful.

Wong is one of six residents in a five-bedroom house in Chinatown, with a shared kitchen and bathroom. Speaking in Mandarin, Wong told me the house is dirty, and she often gets bitten by bugs. She was an active community member who used to participate in many events held by CCED, SEACA's partner organization. But COVID-19 put a stop to that, and she's been holed up for weeks, with no TV and poor radio reception. Still, she said, the package was a welcome gift.

"Being positive is helpful to fight against the virus," Wong said.

NO END IN SIGHT

Trinh told me the group has raised more than $10,000 in donations since it launched on March 20.

It won't be hard to find ways to spend the money. She told me she's hearing about a lot of families in Chinatown and Lincoln Heights losing their sources of income as the U.S. plunges into what could be record-high unemployment.

"My heart is warmed by the outpouring of volunteer support and donations and people who are wanting to step up during this time," she told me. "It's scary for everybody."