A seemingly endless cycle of violence has kept homelessness top of mind in Lower Manhattan, with civic and business leaders, residents and activists debating personal safety for the sheltered and unsheltered alike.
Increasingly, Chinatown residents are in the thick of the discussion over solutions, including what constitutes the community’s “fair share” of shelters and other homeless services, and whether concerns of the area’s significant Asian American population are being taken seriously.
Violence last weekend — two unsheltered men were shot on Lower Manhattan streets, one fatally in Chinatown and the other just blocks away – marked the continuation of an uninterrupted, overlapping conversation around homelessness that gained steam in recent weeks following brutal attacks on Asian American New Yorkers, including instances where homeless men were charged.
The discussions in Zoom hearings, protests and interviews have laid bare a community’s conflicting positions on its most vulnerable residents. In Chinatown, long the cultural center of the city’s Asian American community, the discussions frequently surface complaints about political powerlessness and neglect. Common ground on solutions serving the whole community, including where to site shelters and how to deliver services, has been elusive.
The discord was on full display one evening in late February as members of Manhattan Community Board 2’s Human Services subcommittee convened to discuss a single agenda item: a proposed homeless facility on Grand Street, a block from Sara D. Roosevelt park in Chinatown, on the eastern fringe of the Lower Manhattan district.
The virtual meeting included a presentation by Charles King, a former ACT UP activist and now the CEO of Housing Works, which would run the facility in the district, bordered by the Hudson River, West 14th Street, Bowery/Fourth Avenue and Canal Street.
Backers touted the site — a “drop-in” facility where someone could take a shower, do their laundry or see a therapist — as a necessary addition to a neighborhood where unsheltered homeless people have long had a visible presence, in a city where homelessness was, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, at “the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s,”
But from the perspective of many who tuned in to the community board meeting, the prospect of a new homeless facility couldn’t have come at a worse moment. Chinatown was convulsing over the February 13th murder of 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee, who was attacked inside her Chrystie Street apartment, allegedly by a homeless man who had followed Lee home. Hundreds spoke out against the plan.
“They want to build a shelter just a block away from where Christina Yuna Lee was killed,” wrote Peter Cheng in the meeting room chat. “Do these people have any respect for Asian lives? Are we just a bunch of chinamen to them?” Many others invoked Lee’s death, seen as part of a spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, which were up 361% citywide in 2021, compared to the previous year
But just weeks later, another spate of violence touched the neighborhood. Police in Washington, D.C., and New York said five homeless men living on the street were shot, allegedly by the same assailant, two of them fatally. Two of the shootings occurred in Manhattan Community District 2, including a fatal attack March 12th on Lafayette Street – just blocks from the site of the Grand Street facility opposed by neighborhood residents.
At a press conference, Mayor Eric Adams described the crimes as a "chilling" act of "cold-blooded murder," and said the incidents were a "clear and horrific intentional act" targeting homeless individuals. On Tuesday, authorities announced the arrest of a suspect – Gerald Brevard III, 30, of Washington, whose family told Gothamist he struggled with mental illness and often slept on the street.
But the attacks described by Adams were hardly new ground for New York or even Lower Manhattan. It was just two and a half years ago that four homeless men living on the street in Chinatown were randomly attacked and killed – prompting commitments for new shelters. And in February 2021, four homeless people were stabbed in subway attacks; two of the victims died of their injuries.
Increasingly, progressive groups and advocates for homeless people voice concern over what they see as one often-vilified community being pitted against another.
All told, six new shelters are planned for Lower Manhattan’s Community Districts 1, 2 and 3, which all claim parts of Chinatown. Local opponents complain that Chinatown is a kind of repository for facilities shunned by wealthier communities, including shelters and a controversial high-rise jail earmarked for 125 White Street.
According to city data, there are other communities with more shelters, but Manhattan Community District 3, wherein the bulk of sprawling Chinatown is situated, is among the city leaders for shelters. Manhattan Community District 2 has none, according to the data.
“Where is the Asian representation in CB2 to discuss issues in Chinatown?” asked Donald Fung, writing in the meeting room chat. Asian Americans make up about 15.5% of Community District 2’s population, and hold down about 6.1% of the advisory body’s board seats, according to city figures. Another commenter, identified only by their initials, chimed in: “‘You don’t matter’ is what I’m hearing.”
‘Stop Asian Hate’
Over the last year, expressions of Chinatown’s grief have become permanent features of the neighborhood’s landscape. Just across the street from Sara D. Roosevelt Park is a mural by the Japanese street artist Dragon76 that simply reads “Stop Asian Hate,” the words enveloping a young boy who looks up, hopefully, while clad in combat fatigues.
And on a side street less than a block from Columbus Park another mural declares “Our Asian Community Is Safe.” At the base of the mural is a memorial to Christina Yuna Lee, including bouquets of flowers, some still fresh during a recent visit. They surround a watercolor portrait of Lee, her long hair falling over a blouse speckled with red flowers. She died after suffering more than 40 knife wounds, according to police. Assama Nash, who police said had lived on the Bowery, has been charged with her murder.
There are also hand-written messages, scrawled on little white chits of paper. One of them reads, “Hi Christina, I am so sorry life was taken from you so hatefully. Sending blessings to your soul.”
Lee’s death came against a backdrop of what Asian American community leaders see as an epidemic of violence directed at their community, in New York and across the country. According to Stop AAPI Hate, there were nearly 11,000 incidents of hate and harassment nationwide from March 2020, marking the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., through the end of 2021.
Nearly 43% of people who reported incidents self-identified as Chinese, and 16% as Korean. California accounted for 38.1% of the reported incidents while New York had 15.7%. No other state recorded more than 5% of cases. Over a span of two months, four New Yorkers of Asian descent died in what the authorities described as random attacks, including the January 15th death of Michelle Go, an Upper West Side resident who was pushed in front of a subway at Times Square, allegedly by a homeless man. On March 11th, a 67-year-old Asian American woman was attacked from behind while entering her Yonkers apartment building, by an assailant who struck her 125 times in the head and face while using racial slurs, police said.
“You have this wave of Asian American violence, which is incredibly scary,” said Corinne Low, who is Chinese American, adding that some of her Asian American friends are afraid to meet after dark.
In this climate, and in response to the backlash from Upper West Side residents to temporary hotel shelters in their neighborhood, Low in 2020 co-founded the Open Hearts Initiative, a group that builds community support for homeless facilities.
Low said that there is an urgent need for homeless facilities in Lower Manhattan and that shelters would make all neighborhood residents safer. She said residents’ pushback against the facilities is closely tied to a sense that the city “is not making policy side by side with them, or with their input, but it’s rather imposing their will on this neighborhood and this community and they feel left out by the policy discussion.”
You have this wave of Asian American violence, which is incredibly scary.
Over the last decade, New York’s Chinese population has grown in other parts of the city, resulting in thriving Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn that are far larger than in Lower Manhattan. The 2020 census found that the neighborhood had 27,200 Asian residents, half that of Elmhurst or Flushing.
Per the census, as thousands of Asian residents have left Chinatown, the community has become more racially diverse, with many new residents drawn to gleaming new apartment buildings. The result is not only a Chinatown that is less Chinese, but one experiencing economic polarization. The pandemic has only added to the recent strain, according to neighborhood leaders.
“Prior to COVID-19, there was a dramatic income disparity in CD 3,” reads the 2022 District Needs Statement for Community District 3, which is 30% Asian and contains a portion of Chinatown. It bumps up against Community District 2 to the west and runs to the East River. “The district now has the second highest gap between the lowest- and highest-income households out of all districts in New York City and it is growing.”
In recent years, according to the fiscal 2023 report for Community District 2, the median monthly rent there rose to $2,311, “the highest in the city,” based on American Community Survey data from 2015-2019. The impact of COVID on existing issues of housing and social services are yet to be fully understood, the report said, adding that updated rent data will likely show steeper costs. It noted: “We are experiencing an upheaval in our community with no predictable end.”
The pandemic had an especially acute impact on the neighborhood because of its high percentage of Asian Americans who own small businesses or are employed in the service industry.
“Asian American small businesses made up 20% of New York City’s businesses before the pandemic and were the fastest-growing segment of small businesses in our city,” the needs statement reads. “However, they were devastated by the COVID crisis, with over half the owners reporting losses of 75% or more in revenue in 2020.”
From a pre-pandemic unemployment level of 3.4%, the Asian American Federation said in a report, “Asian American unemployment soared to 25.6% by May 2020, the largest increase among all major racial groups” in the city. Yet for homeless people, life on the streets of Lower Manhattan didn’t just begin to get hard with COVID-19.
The death of ‘Uncle Kwok’
Neighborhood residents affectionately called him Uncle Kwok. His actual name was Chuen Kwok, and he was an 83-year-old man who slept outside a store on the Bowery. In October 2019, he was found bludgeoned to death, along with three other homeless neighborhood men.
The incident, which took place months before the pandemic ravaged the city, spurred a community-wide reckoning about the daily risks faced by homeless New Yorkers and the fact that “people who are homeless are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than the general population,” as noted by the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Kwok’s death generated support for a 120-bed safe haven facility in Chinatown, located at 91 East Broadway, in place of a former hotel next to the Manhattan Bridge overpass. It’s set to open in 2023. Currently, the entrance to the building is boarded up and papered over with posters for upcoming concerts by Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish. Nearby are other posters proclaiming “Stop the Chinatown Megajail” – another project, conceived under the Mayor Bill de Blasio administration, targeted for Chinatown and opposed by residents there.
“If [Mr. Kwok] had the choice of a safe haven and to be able to communicate with people in his language, he certainly would have had a better chance,” Susan Stetzer of Manhattan Community Board 3 told Gothamist in February.
The safe haven was overwhelmingly approved by the community board, in large part because, like the drop-in facility planned for Grand Street, it is meant to cater to the neighborhood’s existing homeless population.
As Manhattan Community Board 3 noted in its Needs Assessment, “Many people within our community live on the edge of homelessness and economic survival.”
The city’s homeless system is vast and, to many New Yorkers, can be confusing.
According to homeless advocates, much of the opposition to planned facilities – namely the drop-in at Grand Street and the safe haven at East Broadway – has rested on the misconception that these sites will be large intake shelters that are the first point of contact for many unhoused families and individuals within the city’s homeless system and will serve as a magnet for unhoused people from across the city, including parolees.
The advocacy group The Bridge notes that the safe haven model is an alternative to the central shelter intake, “which can be a barrier to care for some individuals with behavioral health needs. Rather, clients are placed in the Safe Haven by their own decision to accept services from and collaborate with homeless outreach workers.”
On March 1st, Jacky Wong of the group Concerned Citizens of East Broadway held a demonstration in Sara D. Roosevelt Park.
He organized it in response to reports that day of the death of GuiYing Ma, another victim of what police called random violence. The 61-year-old Ma, who lived in Queens, had been struck in the head with a rock last November, then went into a coma. Elisaul Perez, 33, was charged in the attack. Police said he had 11 prior arrests, and reports indicate he was homeless.
“We don't want to be ignored,” said Wong at the rally. “Because we feel like our risk is not recognized.”
Behind him stood other community leaders from the Chinatown Business Improvement District and the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. Some held signs saying “We Demand Real Solutions for Homeless and Mental.”
Afterward, Wong pointed to a Daily News report from last May. It cited NYPD officials who said nearly half of all anti-Asian hate crimes in the city were committed by people with “a diagnosed mental illness or [who] have been hospitalized before.”
That figure was drawn from a specific pool of 23 people who’d been arrested “for assaulting and harassing” Asian New Yorkers in the first four months of 2021.
“That is the correlation,” said Wong.
The NYPD did not respond to queries about the data. Obtaining information about homeless shelters in New York is notoriously hard, making any assessments about their impact on neighborhood safety difficult.
“For privacy reasons, New York City – and probably other cities – don't make public the location and opening dates of shelters,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, faculty director at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. “So researchers can't study the impact on crime in the surrounding neighborhood.”
Mae Lee, the executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said, “It is not fair to say that the presence of a facility that’s intended to help these homeless people will therefore mean it’s more dangerous.”
“Not all homeless people are dangerous, and not all dangerous people are homeless,” she said.
Some of the Asian opposition to shelters, said Lee, were rooted in class. “They never knew anybody like that,” she said. “People are just not exposed.”
Lee added: “So the homeless don’t seem human.”
Jacqueline Simone, the policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, acknowledged the concerns of local residents: “Their sense of safety has been shaken, especially in the past few years. I think we just need to make sure that we’re not painting all homeless people with a broad brush in reaction to that.”
But pushback against homeless facilities has spread to Asian communities beyond Lower Manhattan.
In 2021, residents of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, came out in force against a shelter at Eighth Avenue and 65th Street. This included a “No Shelter” protest late last October that reportedly drew 1,000 Asians from across the city, as well as Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa. Sliwa went on to win 46% of the votes in central Sunset Park and 44% of the vote in majority-Asian districts, far better than he did citywide, The City reported.
Such resistance is hardly out of the ordinary. As Wijeyaratne of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities put it, “predominantly white and wealthy neighborhoods have fought tooth and nail to not have things like homeless shelters in their districts, and that is absolutely part of the problem.”
What’s a ‘Fair Share’?
Officials who work for Mayor Adams insist the administration’s homeless shelter siting is equitable. Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have been trying to nudge unsheltered homeless people from subway cars and the streets and into neighborhood shelters – in the face of continued opposition from some homeless people, who tell Gothamist the facilities aren’t safe.
“Every neighborhood has to take their fair share,” said Roslyn Carter, the administrator of the Department of Homeless Services, during the CB 2 meeting, arguing that the administration didn’t discriminate between rich and poor neighborhoods when it came to placing shelters, “even on 58th Street, across from Trump Towers.”
That location, amid the city’s most expensive real estate, opened in November despite litigation and a well-funded opposition campaign from wealthy neighborhood residents.
“Fair Share” isn’t a mere turn of phrase: Specific criteria were added to the City Charter more than 30 years ago, and are meant to ensure that the city doesn’t oversaturate facilities deemed undesirable in poor neighborhoods. But city leaders have widely acknowledged the weakness of the rules. Former Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said, “our Fair Share guidelines are vague and difficult to enforce” in her 2016 State of the City address.
According to data from the Department of Homeless Services, Community District 3 in Manhattan has 1,033 individuals in the homeless shelter system. There are currently 15 community districts with more people in the shelter system. Brooklyn Community District 16 (Brownsville), for instance, holds 3,152, while Bronx Community District 4 (Highbridge/Mount Eden) has 2,519.
By contrast, Manhattan Community District 1 has 240 beds within its borders, while Manhattan Community District 2 currently has none.
For city officials and homeless advocates, the data makes it clear that there’s a need for additional facilities in Chinatown, and room for them. However, Edward Cuccia, an immigrant rights attorney who lives and works in the neighborhood, is unconvinced.
“I feel that Chinatown as a community is absolutely victimized,” said Cuccia, mulling next moves. “I think litigation may become necessary.”