San Francisco's Tenderloin district is known to many as the city's seedy underbelly—a dangerous neighborhood overrun by crime and homelessness. Less known is that this neighborhood has served as a longtime haven for Asian refugees and immigrants.
In the 1970s, the Bay Area saw an influx of families from war-torn Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, many of whom settled in the Tenderloin district. To serve this high-need population facing trauma, PTSD and the challenges of transitioning to life here, a group of Vietnamese refugees founded the Vietnamese Youth Development Center (VYDC) in 1978.
Today Cambodians and Laotians have the highest rates of poverty and lowest educational attainment out of all ethnicities in the Bay Area, with Vietnamese not too far behind.
We checked in on how the community is doing with Judy Young, Executive Director of VYDC—an Asian Pacific Fund affiliate and 2014 grant recipient—after her recent appearance in this PBS NewsHour segment on the Tenderloin.
APF: What are the biggest challenges Asian kids growing up in the Tenderloin face today?
I moved to the Tenderloin from Vietnam in 1981, and it hasn't changed too much in the past twenty to thirty years in terms of what the kids face. Now, they might be born here, but their parents are immigrants or refugees, and they face the same cultural, language and generational gaps as before.
Poverty is the main issue—the parents might be unemployed or on public assistance, or they're working multiple jobs and it's harder to care for and support their kids. There may be behavioral or mental health issues that haven't been addressed because of language barriers. Language is also a barrier at home. Kids don't receive support at home, which you see at school, and they don't receive support at school. They get lost in the system. By the time we reach them, many of them are almost dropping out or have been in the juvenile justice system.
APF: What's the daily environment like for the kids?
The environment in the Tenderloin is very dense and urban. There's a lot of homelessness, street crime and drug dealing. People in SROs (single room occupancy hotels) are vulnerable. There are behavioral or mental health issues, drug addiction. Drug dealers come to take advantage of that population. There's a lot of trash around, it's not clean. You see defecation, drunks, drugs.
But families have a hard time finding affordable housing—there's no choice. Plus when language is a barrier it's hard to speak out about the needs. For many immigrants there's a tendency not to speak out, and they're more vulnerable.
APF: You've been in this community for so long. Why do you remain so committed to it, and what's your vision for the community?
I'm gradually seeing positive changes and that's why I choose to stay. Families, children and youth live here. I want to make it livable, safe and clean. There are many homeless advocates and shelters here. At the same time, we have to recognize that families want to make this place their home. They flock here because it's really affordable. This is what they have. Let's go above and beyond and meet community goals. Help them become more economically self-sufficient and rise out of poverty. You have to work with the individual as a whole.