We are pleased to present a research paper on San Francisco’s Chinatown, entitled San Francisco’s Chinatown: Resilience in the face of Poverty & Homelessness, An Analysis with Recommendations. This paper is the culmination of work spearheaded by our intern Blair Vorsatz, and then supplemented with in-person interviews by journalist Katherine Kam. Click on the link, to access the paper as a downloadable PDF.

San Francisco’s Chinatown is arguably the city’s most socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhood, an island of concentrated poverty in an ethnic immigrant enclave. It is home to more than 15,000 inhabitants, largely foreign-born Chinese immigrants who are as a whole slightly older than the San Francisco average. Chinatown’s poverty rate is almost three times the San Francisco norm, its unemployment rate is over two times the norm, and the majority of its households do not have any English-speaking adults. Although the size of Chinatown’s homeless population is not entirely known, the point-in-time homeless count data suggests that the maximum possible homeless rate is 1.60%. How is it possible that Chinatown’s residents endure the city’s worst socio-economic disadvantage and yet show a reported homeless rate that appears to be close to zero? Chinatown families appear to be coping with an approximate ‘socio-economic homeless’ status by prioritizing very cheap, cramped shelter. Single Room Occupancies, or SROs, allow residents to have shelter by night, but are so small that their occupants often choose to stay outside during the day. This is termed de jure homelessness. While not ideal, this coping strategy seems to be the best of poor choices, providing certain advantages over splitting up a family and other dangers associated with other forms of “shelters,” and especially over de facto homelessness. One of these advantages is the environment of shared cultural identity: cultural comfort and a sense of community.

Chinatown’s story is the American story: an older generation of immigrants sacrifices its own personal comforts, investing instead in their children’s futures. They settle together, in response to a variety of pressures. In so doing, the older generation may retain language and customs, placing itself at a disadvantage as compared to other impoverished groups that have no language or cultural barriers to self-advocacy. The calculated self-sacrifice of SRO residency and local employment, while onerous for parents, may provide (or be expected to provide) a strong platform from which the next generation can socio-economically ascend. In this paper, we examine the current state of the community in San Francisco’s Chinatown, with a specific focus on its residents’ use of the SRO as a coping mechanism for extreme poverty.   The paper includes in-person interviews, and recommendations for action, as well.

Lead Author: Blair Vorsatz was the lead researcher and writer for this paper, during his time as an intern at The Elfenworks Foundation. A graduate of Georgetown and currently pursuing graduate studies at Harvard, Blair is also currently serving as an intern on the National Security & International Policy Team for the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Co-Author:  Dr. Lauren Speeth is the CEO of The Elfenworks Foundation, and has authored books, articles, music and short films on social entrepreneurship, poverty,  opportunity and hope.

Contributing Writer: Katherine Kam is a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area who brings insight, analysis and strong storytelling to complex issues. During her career in journalism, she has written about health and mental health, medicine, travel, cross-cultural issues, and many other topics.