O.C.'s Vietnamese homeless people feel like outcasts in a culture of family, achievement




Tam Nguyen in the car where he sleeps in Little Saigon. Nguyen grew up in Vietnam and came to the U.S. to look for his white father. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tam Nguyen in the car where he sleeps in Little Saigon. Nguyen grew up in Vietnam and came to the U.S. to look for his white father. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)  

The bargain buyers drifted out of a popular Little Saigon fruit shop with tote bags full of pale brown longan and hairy red rambutan, barely glancing at the dirt-smeared face of Duc Tran.

Tran hovered near a door, hinting to passersby that he was thirsty with a drinking gesture and a finger to his throat. In Vietnamese, he asked for "tien mua mi" - money for a bowl of noodles.

He was a car salesman until chasing the high of methamphetamines took over his life.

For the last five years or so, he has been roaming outside Little Saigon's fabric stores and takeout eateries.

He is part of a ragtag group, many of whom lived through the devastation of the Vietnam War and came to the U.S. as refugees in their teens. They have converged on Little Saigon from the rest of the state and beyond, drawn by familiar foods and the ease of communicating in their native language.

Now, they bed down on sidewalks or in alleys along Bolsa Avenue and other thoroughfares. They number about 20, which locals say is an increase since the pandemic started.

Homeless man Oliver Nguyen stands for a portrait in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community.
Homeless man Oliver Nguyen stands for a portrait in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community.  

Many cite mental illness or drugs as why they ended up on the streets.

In a culture anchored by family ties, career achievement and a strong work ethic, they are outliers - jobless, often estranged from loved ones, reduced to begging for dollars or banh mi sandwiches.

The shame can deepen their isolation.

"I realize Vietnamese want to be associated with success. They are ashamed of being poor. They avoid debt. Why would they stay in touch with us?" said Charlie Duong, 55, who became homeless after depression left him unable to work as a manicurist.

Duong is too ashamed to ask his relatives for help and has lost touch with his children.

"Why would he want anyone to know his father is like this?" he said of his oldest son, an architect.

For Vietnamese Americans shopping or working in Little Saigon, the poorest among them evoke a complex mixture of emotions.

Southland Integrated Services case worker Ngoc Khanh Banh meets Tam Nguyen for the first time to share information.
Southland Integrated Services case worker Ngoc Khanh Banh meets Tam Nguyen for the first time to share information.  

In a tight-knit refugee community that generally prospered after coming to this country with nothing, the sight of fellow Vietnamese living on the streets can prompt judgment about how they ended up in this situation.

To start off the Lunar New Year on the right foot, some hand out cash and food to homeless people.

Teresa Bui donates on her birthday. But her bosses at the restaurant where she works "directed me not to give so much food away because it becomes a habit," she said. "People get lazy, and they don't learn to take care of themselves."

Tran, the homeless man outside the fruit shop, said Vietnamese church groups sometimes stop by with food. But, he said, "they really can't devote much time to changing our lives."

"I thought, for sure, refugees know what it's like to be stranded," he said. "Yet many of them look past us."

About 3% of Orange County's more than 3,000 unsheltered people are Asian, according to a May "point in time" count.

More than 40% of the county's unsheltered population have substance abuse issues and nearly 30% struggle with mental health issues, the count found.

Homeless men in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community.
Homeless men in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community.  

Westminster, the city that includes Little Saigon, cannot afford to fund homeless housing on its own, said Councilwoman Kimberly Ho. City officials are in talks with Fountain Valley and Garden Grove to join forces and build a temporary space with beds, showers and lockers.

"With the amount of [homeless] people growing, I totally understand how business owners feel," Ho said. "They think that if you continue to give them money, they will just come back. We must find other solutions."

Westminster police Cmdr. Kevin MacCormick leads a homeless outreach unit, including two liaison officers and a civilian case manager, which tries to connect people with social services and housing.

Tran says he hides from some of the workers, who "always ask the same questions." He is wary of getting "mixed up" with the government.

"They have too many rules. They search you for products," Tran said, referring to drugs.

Food stamps, however, are a welcome supplement for Tran and some of Little Saigon's other homeless people. Their favorite day of the month is when they receive the payments and can stock up on jasmine rice, fish sauce and salt.

Occasionally, they barter or resell groceries for prized items such as a Bunsen burner, which they use to cook dishes such as vegetable soup over rice.

A few times a year, Tran's parents drive around looking for him so they can give him a bit of cash. He has been unable to overcome his drug addiction, he said.

"Some days, I desperately need help," he said, wiping his cheek on a sweatshirt unwashed for over a month. "Some days, I think I don't."

Councilman Tai Do, who as a Long Beach police officer has worked for years with street populations, said the city needs to offer housing and mental health assistance, even if some people won't accept help.

Westminster's homeless outreach team is understaffed, said Councilman Carlos Manzo. Even as the city faces staffing cuts and possible bankruptcy, Manzo and others are working to hire at least one more police officer for the team, through a separate funding source.

Duong, the former manicurist, has slept for months in an abandoned car in an alley behind some warehouses.

This past spring, he found a large "Janet Nguyen for State Senate" poster and used it for shade, balancing it over the car and a faded couch.

One day at around 1 p.m., he stepped out of his shelter, quickly pulling on pants and donning his ever-present cowboy hat.

He had just woken up. He sleeps odd hours because he and his friends take turns standing guard to protect themselves from robbers, he said.

They have been "jumped" a handful of times after dark," he added, with the attackers flashing knives and running off with cash.

Duong, who came to the U.S. when he was in his 20s, said he was once married to the daughter of a successful Vietnamese restaurant family in suburban Chicago.

On vacation in Vietnam, he dated several women, he said, leading his wife to divorce him. He lost custody of his son and relocated to Kansas City, Mo., to work on a meat assembly line, he said.

In California in 1994, he trained to become a manicurist. He remarried and had more children. But his depression struck again, and customers complained about his mistakes.

He couldn't hold down a job and resorted to "life outdoors," he said.

"Some people are on drugs. Some people are not," he said. "We don't have big plans. We live in the moment, and we want to stay safe."

Jenny Nguyen shifts between storefronts with a shady spot to sit, clutching multiple plastic bags filled with shabby shoes and brimmed hats.

She arrived in Arizona from Vietnam as a high school student. What she described as "fragile" mental health forced her to "exit" her job at a ceramics factory, she said.

"I don't expect people to understand my situation," said Nguyen, 52.

Mental health is often a taboo subject in immigrant families, who can be ill-equipped to handle a struggling relative, said Ngoc Khanh Banh, a manager at Southland Integrated Services, which offers food and mental health services to low-income people.

"You would think that family members take them in - no questions asked - but actually, that's not the case," Banh said.

Banh visited Little Saigon's homeless residents for the first time recently.

"I'm not here for judgment," she told one resident, Tam Nguyen. "I'm here to listen. Please tell me what emergencies you have, and we'll try to help."

Nguyen, 54, has lived on the streets for about 15 years and is believed to be Little Saigon's longest-standing homeless resident.

Like many "Amerasians" born to Vietnamese women and American service members, he was raised by his mother in Vietnam, not knowing his white father.

He came to the U.S. hoping to connect with his father's family but had no luck tracking them down. He started sleeping on the streets after he ran out of money, he said.

Often, his bedroom is a beat-up chocolate-colored Honda. He cuts his own hair, repairs discarded bikes to resell, washes cars and sweeps the pavement outside shops for pocket change.

"We're risking life on the street," he said, "I also think medical situations are risky. I depend on myself."

Still, he can be generous to others in the same situation.

When Oliver Nguyen, 28, showed up in Little Saigon, Tam Nguyen offered soda, clothes and the back seat of his car as a sleeping spot.

The younger Nguyen asks "Uncle Tam" for survival tips and bike tools. A graduate of a high school in Torrance, he battled crystal meth and other drugs. His mother repeatedly sent him to rehab. After she died, he ended up on the streets a year and a half ago.

He does odd jobs to save money. Tattoos on the right side of his face say "Love one another" and "Good fortune" in Chinese characters.

Family and friends always praised his deep singing voice, and he still dreams of making it as a musician.

A friend he met on Craigslist recently helped him produce a demo titled "Let Love Nguyen" - a play on his last name, pronounced "Win."

"Dear Mom - I can't let your life die in vain. I must win. Your son, Oliver," he wrote in a notebook he carries everywhere.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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