How I learned to speak to my Asian community about homelessness and stigma

Through her volunteer work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Christine Yang guides us though her share of difficult conversations about homelessness and the stigma surrounding it. Through these conversations, we can also learn how to approach the issue of homelessness within our Asian communities

Being that kid who always asked “why” drove my parents crazy. Especially so when it came to difficult questions about homelessness.

When I was younger, I remember heading to Vancouver’s Chinatown — a low-income neighbourhood with a large homeless population — to buy groceries with my mother. When we got there, she insisted I stay inside the car. Of course, I asked why.

She replied that it was “safer”, and to “not ask questions.”

They could never completely answer those queries I had about homelessness. And so, at age 14, I decided to get answers myself — by volunteering in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest postal codes in North America.

That was where my personal journey of understanding and addressing the stigma surrounding homelessness began, especially from hearing perspectives by the Asian community. It’s led me to create Employ To Empower, a non-profit organization I founded in 2018 that aims to support people who face barriers to employment.

Volunteers at the Vancouver Street Store
Volunteers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Photo submitted.

In speaking to those within my Asian community about homelessness and its associated stigmas, my approach is never to forcefully change someone’s mind. Rather, I want to elicit curiosity, share a different perspective, and play a role in the ongoing de-stigmatization of homelessness.

Read more on combating stigma: Mental health support for the Asian Canadian community and beyond

These following conversations may be ones you’ve experienced yourself, whether as the person asking or answering the questions. In any case, these conversations can serve as examples on how to advocate for people facing homelessness.

Standing your ground

Starting a non-profit organization wasn’t initially approved in my family. They didn’t understand why I would choose community over financial stability.

Even my dad, who keeps an open mind, argued with me about my career decision. “You want to help those people?” he asked, “They’re just a bunch of drunks. You think you can change the world, but you can’t. Keep dreaming.”

While I recognize these were words of concern, stemming from a place of not wanting to see his daughter fail or live the “hard life”, I didn’t stand down. These are precious opportunities for education and perspective.

“It’s not like that for everyone,” I said to him. “Maybe some are, but not all.” 

Volunteers at the Vancouver Street Store providing clothing to those facing homelessness
Volunteers at the Vancouver Street Store. Photo submitted.

The lesson here is to prepare for pushback when supporting homeless populations, and to be brave enough to stand your ground for what you believe in. It’s an empowering and liberating moment to know what is non-negotiable in life. For me, it’s my involvement with the DTES.

Since then, he has also volunteered at the Street Store. When I ask him how it went, he says, “It wasn’t that bad” — which, for some within Asian communities, means it was really good!

Responding with empathy

“That’s so dangerous, make sure you bring a pan with you to protect yourself”, my mother said, when I told her for the first time that I wanted to volunteer and support people who are homeless.

Responding with empathy is crucial in this situation.

I could have been upset with my mom for insinuating that I was putting myself in a dangerous situation, but I understood her upbringing and her motherly concern.

Her intention was to make sure I was safe. Even so, I wanted to show her that there was nothing I had to keep myself “safe” from.

Rather than argue that I would be safe, I responded empathically by asking her to volunteer with me. Of course, her initial answer was a hard “no”.

From there, I got creative in trying to convince her. For my birthday, I asked her to join me and celebrate in a more meaningful and impactful way. She said no. I then offered to pay her to come volunteer, and she said no. I asked her to come for a couple hours — once again, she said no.

Finally, I asked if she would come for 15 minutes and that if she didn’t feel right, she could leave. She finally said yes. 

She stayed for 6 hours, and brought baked buns for all the volunteers.

Volunteering with Employ to Empower.
Volunteering with the Vancouver Street Store. Photo submitted.

Since 2014, she has been an annual volunteer at the Vancouver Street Store, which will be held for the seventh year on Dec. 12, 2020, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The event provides a dignified shopping experience for those who experience homelessness — and my mom now runs the sock tent. 

This isn’t about baiting your parents to volunteer, but to offer opportunities for them to get engaged in a way that’s easy for them to say yes, with the hopes of shifting their perceptions. 

And if there’s a window for learning and education, responding empathically and presenting that opportunity goes much further than solely arguing your perspective.

Educate and validate

A few years ago, I met a lovely Chinese grandmother at a non-profit organization where I was helping low-income individuals register to vote.

She asked, “How do I vote for the person who will get rid of those druggies? They need to get a job.”

In broken Cantonese, I replied: “I know that drugs are what we see in the news, but sometimes homelessness isn’t a choice. Unforeseen circumstances happen, such as a fire, death of a family member, or hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

It’s important to not only educate, but validate; as shutting someone down completely — even when they are wrong — may breed resentment. Rather than scold her on her misinformed view, I acknowledged the likely source of that miseducation while offering a different perspective.

Even though she looked at me silently, I felt proud to speak up for a community often stereotyped.

Managing awkward conversations

Now, at family dinners, when others ask the classic question, “Where are you working now?” — I reply with confidence, “I started my own charity to support people experiencing homelessness.”

Over time, these interactions taught me how to be comfortable with awkwardness. At first, it was hard to navigate through these conversations from relatives, especially since my two brothers are in accounting and academics. 

But one quote by an American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, always grounds me: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Unloading boxes of clothes for people facing homelessness at the Vancouver Street Store
Unloading boxes at the Vancouver Street Store. Photo submitted.

As you find yourself verbalizing what you believe in, your conviction and confidence in it grows accordingly. As hard as that initial conversation may be, keep having it.

Reflecting on a common question

When people ask what other reasons there are — apart from unforeseen circumstances — that would cause people to become homeless, my answer is “mental health.” 

But when something like mental health isn’t well-understood and not often discussed within a community, it’s really difficult to build an empathetic bridge.

A good start is to normalize the conversation around mental health with those around you, even if it’s uncomfortable.

That means being an example by asking the right questions, such as “How is your wellbeing?” “What’s been on your mind lately?” and “How are you, really?”

By starting within your community, you can provide others the language to understand mental health, and apply it to others.

Ways to guide a difficult conversation about homelessness

When someone raises a stereotype about homelessness, some questions I ask them are:

  • Why do you feel that way?
  • Where did you get that idea from?
  • Is it OK if I give you a different perspective?
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • I’ve actually had really different experiences from yours. Is it OK if I share? 

My approach in responding begins with curiosity, giving the individual a chance to share their perspective, while also giving myself an opportunity to learn.

Next, I ask for permission to share a different opinion. People are allowed to have their reservations, and I find that asking for permission is a respectful way to preface challenging one’s assumptions.

Providing haircuts to homeless populations
Providing haircuts for those who need it. Photo submitted

When I do get permission, I don’t enter the conversation thinking I will change minds. I enter with the intention of sharing a different perspective for them to consider. I call it “seed planting”. They can decide what to do with the seed, whether to leave it or water it. The point is, the seed would never have been planted if the discussion didn’t happen.

We need more seed planters. 

Self awareness is the first step to any behaviour or mindset change. My hope is that sharing my personal experiences with the homeless community can help others in planting more seeds, especially within Asian communities.

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