Jimmy, a Vietnamese American, is a graduate student at San Francisco State University.
Mary resettled as a refugee from Karen State in Burma seven years ago and now attends community college.
Sonny immigrated from the Philippines, worked 35 years as a seaman, and recently retired in Oakland.
These three individuals share three things in common: they are Asian Americans, they are my neighbors in East Oakland, and they are homeless.
As I grapple with Jesus’ call to love my neighbor, solidarity with my fellow Asian Americans requires that I see my own helpless estate, as well as our shared fate as exiles.
Hidden Homelessness and Poverty
Jimmy resorts to sleeping in his car at night after classes. He washes up in school facilities, and even sneaks a rice cooker into the San Fransisco State library to use for meals.
To make ends meet, Mary’s family of six lives with her sister’s family of four in a two-bedroom unit. Her father, brother, nephew, and niece have to sleep on the floor.
Sonny built a shack made of wood and cardboard alongside train tracks. Until recently, he lived in the Asian enclave of the encampment, alongside about eight other Asian Americans.
Like the Asian Americans who are trafficked for sex or labor, Asian Americans who are homeless aren’t seen on the streets. Their indigent status is pervasive, but hidden from the public — even from other Asian-American communities.
Jimmy, Mary, and Sonny each came from households with steady incomes, either from work or government disability benefits. You probably wouldn’t perceive them as homeless should you encounter them. But none of them can afford decent housing. Each meets the government’s definition of “homeless,” as “an individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” Sleeping in a car, or a shack not meant for human habitation, makes someone eligible for public housing vouchers.
As Oakland gentrifies, housing costs far exceed their ability to make ends meet.
But this pattern of Asian-American homelessness is not limited to Oakland. Asian Americans have the highest rate of poverty among all groups in New York City, Asian-American elderly are three times more likely than white people to have low income in King County, Wash., and in Orange County, Calif., the number of unemployed Asian Americans has recently doubled.
Living with Few Options and Living for their Families
Jimmy parks his car by the San Fransisco State library so he can use the free WiFi and do his homework at night. Cleaning up at the back of his trunk, he learned to brush his teeth and wash himself with hydrogen peroxide. He knows of at least three other Asian-American students who lived out of their cars.
Mary reports that her accommodations years ago in a Thai refugee camp were larger than her Oakland apartment. Because her mother and baby niece go to sleep early, she has do her homework in the noisy living room, where her father and brothers stay.
When Sonny lost a roommate and couldn’t afford his apartment, he constructed his shed just blocks from my church. He even laid carpet over the dirt floor in an effort to make a comfortable living space. Later, the government bulldozed his and the other dozen makeshift homes in this encampment and cleared them out.
None of my neighbors see themselves as homeless.
Jimmy and Mary perceive their situations as a way to benefit their family. Jimmy explains that he lives in his car “out of convenience,” saying he worked two jobs while attending classes so he could help contribute to his parents’ home mortgage.
Mary says, “It’s hard, but I’m not complaining. This is my life. My mom always tells me that she and others didn’t even have a chance to learn to read. So I need to take advantage of every opportunity that God gives us.” Her dream to become a social worker stems from her desire to help others like her parents.
My neighbors have been displaced three times.
For many Asian immigrants and refugees, coming to the United States wasn’t fully voluntary, but a result of war and poverty. Just as the Hebrews needed to learn to live as exiles, Asian Americans needed to find a way to make a new home in a new land. While their hardships reflect the difficulty of exile, Jimmy’s and Mary’s familial love and corporate responsibility also model for me how we Christians are to follow Jesus in the midst of this empire.
Lack of affordable housing has forced my neighbors into their homeless states and decrepit living conditions. The huge gap between their conditions and the hope found in Jesus’ return makes me yearn and pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Like all of humanity, we share in the Fall and banishment from Eden. Jesus’ act of redemption was one of bringing us home, to a new creation and kingdom where we can live in right relationship with him and others. Indeed, we are all spiritually homeless until Jesus returns.
But in God’s new earth, rather than having homes cleared off by bulldozers, people “will build houses and dwell in them.” Instead of receiving disability or retirement checks that do no benefit, our families “will long enjoy the work of their hands.”
The Inextricable Tie of Discipleship
At a recent prayer meeting for our community, a fellow church member remarked how our discipleship is inextricably tied to our neighborhood. At first, my individualistic American self chafed at that notion.
Wanting to justify myself, I asked, “Who is my neighbor? Why should I be held accountable for how they’re doing?”
And when I thought about the market forces that create homelessness, I felt that I, or any congregation, for that matter, could do little to oppose and prevent the resulting structural inequities.
Yet the truth is, we are still to love our neighbors, identify with them, and be responsible for them. We are to repent of our complicity with the American empire that creates homelessness. And even though we may not necessarily fully transform the housing situations of my neighbors, we are to continue to seek God’s righteousness — both right relations with my neighbors, and right living conditions that reflect God's kingdom.
That’s because we, too, are foreigners and exiles to this world. That’s how we claim and live out our identities as citizens of heaven.
My exiled, homeless neighbors remind and teach me how to live out this identity daily.