Battle of the victims: how Asian hate and the housing crisis collide in the city

The security camera footage shows the foyer door to a Chinatown apartment as it cracks open. In the wee hours of the morning, a young woman slips through the narrow opening, mask still partially covering her face. As she makes her way up the six flights of stairs, she is unaware of the man trailing her. She walks down the hall to her front door with the man still close behind. They walk out of frame.

Soon, her screams flood the building, and neighbors call the police, but she is quiet by the time they break through the front door. On February 13th, 2022, 35-year-old Christina Yuna Lee was found dead in her bathtub, naked from the waist up. The alleged assailant, 25-year-old Assamad Nash, had stabbed her more than 40 times.

Photo of the previous memorial taped up at the current one (Madeleine Lee)

Christina Yuna Lee has had her makeshift memorial set outside the apartment building since her murder. It has been desecrated four times.

Just a month before that, on January 15th, 40-year-old Michelle Alyssa Go was murdered, shoved in front of an oncoming train at the Times Square station. The man charged with her murder, 61-year-old Simon Martial, has been deemed unfit to stand trial.

These murders happened one right after the other and have put New York Asian-American women on edge.

In early 2020, the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China sparked an unyielding trend of unprovoked abuse towards Asian-Americans, who were being scapegoated for the pandemic.

Nationwide, nearly 11,000 anti-Asian hate incidents were recorded between March 19th, 2020, and December 31st, 2021.

Civil rights attorney and supervisor to the OCA-NY Hate Crimes Prevention Art Project, Elizabeth OuYang has worked on hate crimes since the 1990s and found that a pattern has emerged throughout her career.

"Hate crimes have always occurred, right? But it wasn't emanating from a major incident," she said. "Then after 9/11, 2001 and then covid you know, in 2019 and 2020 and '21, you know, the number of instances I know, has been off the charts…"

In 2021, 1 in 6 Asian American adults experienced a hate crime or hate incident.

Women and seniors have been among the most common targets. Women make up 61.8% of all reports. Although, according to a recent survey by AAPI Data, men are as likely to experience a hate incident, but are less likely to report it. Non-binary AAPI report they experience more deliberate shunning or avoidance, being coughed at or spat on, denial of service, and online harassment.

"What you're seeing now is a mix-up of issues," OuYang commented. "A high number of instances involving people who are homeless, and not knowing exactly what their motivation was. There's intersectionality between gender and race and more nuanced issues."

Both Lee and Go were murdered by reportedly homeless men with previous criminal records. Both Simon Martial and Assamad Nash have had psychiatric evaluations at Bellevue Hospital, a well-known destination for mental health services.

There was no explicit symbol of anti-Asian racism. Without visible symbols or verbal slurs, it can be hard to get a hate crime categorized as one.

"We don't know how much of his thinking was attributed to societal unconscious biases, right? And their perceptions of Asian women, right? You know, so we don't know," OuYang said.

The day Simon Martial pushed Michelle Go onto the tracks, he approached a white woman just seconds before her.

"We are not only being vilified as women but as Asian Americans, which results in being found at the inescapable intersection of racism and misogyny," 20-year-old student Rachael Park said.

One of the most blatant cases was the Atlanta Spa Shootings from March last year when 21-year-old Robert Long shot up three different massage parlors to "eliminate sexual temptation." He killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women.

The hypersexualization of Asian women in America goes as far back as 1875 with the introduction of The Page Act. The law prohibited the recruitment of laborers from "China, Japan or any Oriental country" who were not brought to the United States of their own will or for "lewd or immoral purposes." This effectively barred many Chinese women from immigrating, even with family, based on the assumption that Chinese women would work as prostitutes.

This stigma has largely been perpetuated through America's military presence in Asian countries. Particularly Vietnam, Korea, Japan and the Philippines. When the U.S withdrew from those countries, American GIs brought back the description of the submissive and sexually servile Asian woman. This stereotype has been further spread and reinforced through popular culture in movies and television shows.

This dehumanizing view of Asian women can put the many Asian immigrant women who work in service industries at a higher risk for human rights abuses and violence. Sex work can happen, but it could often be because the women are being trafficked to pay off debts for family back home, smugglers, or labor traffickers. These circumstances can leave their businesses highly susceptible to repeated police raids. But when raids happen, it is often the women who end up behind bars, whether there is trafficking involved or not.

In the case of the Atlanta Spa Shootings, there is no evidence to suggest that the women killed were involved with sex work. They were mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters who worked to provide for their families. On the first anniversary of the shootings, a memorial was held in Times Square that doubled as a rally to "protect Asian women."

"It's crazy how desensitized we've become to violence," Elizabeth Kari, one of the speakers, said. "These are real people and real-live, real community members and like you know, a whole culture of people that's being affected by this."

Kari's mother, Vilma Kari, was attacked last year in Times Square on her way to church. She suffered a broken pelvis after being kicked down and stomped on repeatedly. The perpetrator said something to the effect of, "F-ck you Asian, you don't belong here."

The perpetual foreigner stereotype categorizes ethnic minorities as the "other." Regardless of where they were born, or how long they have been in America, the other is typically assumed to be foreign. In times of fear and uncertainty, it tends to become a part of the American coping mechanism. Groups affected by this rhetoric then become perceived as the enemy.

This "otherness" being a major component in her mother's attack prompted Kari to create AAP(I Belong), where Asian Americans can share their stories to find a sense of belonging.

25-year-old Cailin Liu stands under the bright mid-afternoon sun. She's wrapped in a chocolate brown vintage coat that complements the color of her almond eyes. Her hand peeks out from the faux fur cuff clutching her phone. She is showing off her new haircut on FaceTime. Her black hair hugs the contours of her face freshly bobbed and slightly waved, like an old Hollywood starlet.

"[My] grandparents, literally just didn't leave their house for like over a year too. And I don't know how much of it was them being afraid and us being like, 'Please don't go outside. They're attacking elderly people on the streets.'" said the Columbia Law student.

Now, standing in Manhattan's Chinatown, she says the population here reminds her of her grandparents. "And so that's had me thinking about how, you know, like, this is just a really concentrated population of really vulnerable, elderly, Asian, Chinese immigrants. And that I feel like I worry for everyone constantly."

62-year-old GuiYing Ma was the third Asian woman to die this year after being bashed in the head with a rock while cleaning up the sidewalk in front of her home in Corona, Queens. She died on February 22nd, a few days after waking from a 3-month coma.

"It's such a cowardice-kind of act because you're really targeting the most vulnerable of the population and the most respected of our population," said Kari.

"I think people know that it'll be an easy fight… and that's where I think we need to stand up and say, 'No, don't even think about it.' Because yes, maybe this person might appear like someone you can take on but, be prepared to feel the full force of a whole culture of people that are going to stand behind them.'"

In Chinatown, the force has been staunchly opposed to the city's plans to add four more homeless shelters to the existing six within a half-mile radius, in addition to the construction of a mega jail.

Flyer for meeting about the shelter on the corner of Chrystie & Grand (Madeleine Lee)
Online Petition

It's a surprisingly warm day, a harbinger of the spring to come. Miles Jojur and Oscar Garcia take in the sun on the corner of a park on Chrystie and Grand street. Seeming opposite in disposition, Oscar dressed head to toe in baggy black, eyes concealed behind black sunglasses.

Miles stands behind their horizontally parked grocery carts, resting their hands on top. With a pleasant demeanor, they reveal a soft toothy smile, with long black hair slicked into a low bun. Their mellow orange top feels reflective of their aura.

"We sleep in the train and outside in the street or on the train sometimes we go to the Mission to sleep. Pero, every day in the train, outside sleep," Garcia said. The Mission Garcia refers to is the Bowery Mission located close by on the Lower East Side.

"That's why we got blankets too, from the Mission. We go to eat and will collect bottles and bottles to make money."

Covid-19 triggered the rise of Asian hate, but it has also contributed to homelessness in New York City reaching its highest since the Great Depression. Coalition for the Homeless recorded more than 48,000 people in the shelter system.

Miles said they stay mostly at Stuyvesant High School on the Tribeca Bridge. "If you see cardboard there, that's me."

Unhoused individuals in Chinatown have also been on the receiving end of grisly attacks. In 2019, four men sleeping on the streets were murdered with a metal pipe. The assailant was also allegedly homeless with a lengthy criminal record. The Chinatown community held a vigil for the lives lost.

Just this March, a shooter targeted homeless people in Washington D.C and New York City. Authorities believe it was because the person was seeking easy targets and people who live in the streets are a vulnerable group.

It came just after Mayor Eric Adams began to implement efforts to "clean up" the subway systems by pushing homeless people out, as well as dismantling their encampments. This was part of an effort to combat crime underground.

Staying in the subway system is often safer than being exposed to the elements or sometimes even the shelter system.

The rhetoric used by this new administration has implied there's a direct correlation between homelessness in the city, particularly in the subway system, and crime. However, there's no real data point that can give an idea of whether or not unhoused individuals are responsible for more incidents than housed individuals. Mainstream media can perpetuate this narrative by consistently pointing out when a crime is committed by a homeless person. Whereas, if the perpetrator is not homeless, the housing status is never mentioned.

"I've been really disappointed to see some of the same folks who are fighting displacement and gentrification failing to support the creation of new shelters in Chinatown, which seems particularly cruel given the heightened violence carried out by both individuals and the City against people experiencing homelessness in this exact area," Andrew Hiller from the NYC-DSA said.

A common thread between many of the perpetrators of all the attacks that have made the news circuit is that they need psychiatric care. According to Coalition for the Homeless, safe havens, or low-threshold shelters, such as the proposed 231 Grand Shelter, are more effective because they are generally more supportive of those with psychiatric disabilities.

At a Manhattan community board meeting for district two, about 300 Chinatown and Little Italy residents appeared in protest of the shelter. A handful of speakers who took the floor were 1st graders and above from the Transfiguration School. They spoke of a few "scary" experiences where "strange men" entered the property and wouldn't leave.

17-year-old Michael Chen spoke of how he was recently slashed in the neck with a boxcutter by a man in the neighborhood.

"I'm well aware of the concerns that have arisen around the various violent incidents that have taken place, both on the subway and the recent incident in Chinatown, and what we're talking about is people who have serious behavioral health issues, who are disconnected from care," King said in a document outlining Housing Works' model for the proposed haven. "We're not going to be able to coerce homeless people who are in the subways and on the street. We can only entice them into care…Part of what this facility does is it addresses the mental health issues at the moment that is most critical not only to the people we're serving but to the community."

The shelter plans to use a harm reduction model that provides clean needles, Narcan, supervision, and drug education.

Many of the parents in attendance were concerned about the permittance of drugs and weapons. King responded that he doesn't know of a neighborhood without schools, daycares, or senior housing, but he promised to keep them safe.

The proposed 231 Grand Shelter is just around the corner from Christina Yuna Lee's apartment.

Overall, the consensus by community speakers was that Chinatown has more than its fair share of shelters compared to other districts of Manhattan. With just about every speaker, it was made clear that this wasn't a crusade against the homeless. They often talked about how the issue was that they could be directing the money used to keep building new shelters towards actually ending homelessness.

The lack of affordable housing is a major factor in pushing out Chinatown residents, many of them older immigrants, who have lived there for years. Luxury developers are bulldozing over existing housing and small businesses.

One of the largest low-income housing complexes for Chinese people is called the Knickerbocker Village. A luxury developer is on the cusp of acquiring it. Jihye Song from the National Mobilization of Sweatshop Workers said, "So, you know right now the Knickerbocker Village is like 16,000 units. So, let's see the 16,000 households at risk of displacement just in this one building complex."

She added, "The city's just sort of doing these dead-end of the line Band-Aid, like barely Band-Aid Solutions, like these homeless shelters and not really going to the root cause of what the problems that they are in fact driving the displacement, that results in the need for homeless shelters."

Adam Johnson of the podcast Citations Needed, says that "mayoral campaigns are often funded by real estate interests. That's who drives local politics." If this is the case, it could explain why the default "solution" is to add shelters, get rid of encampments, and drive the homeless out of the city. It's an, "out of sight, out of mind," solution.

Jawanza Williams from the grassroots organization, VOCAL-NY, estimates that it will take at least $15 billion directed into housing to begin ending homelessness. As of now, the single adult homeless population has a budget of $2 billion.

Recently there has been an even larger show of protest against the construction of a mega jail in Chinatown to house relocated prisoners due to the closure of Riker's Island. An NYU Center for the Study of Asian American Health found that construction poses serious health risks for the older adult population. The structure shares a wall with a low-income senior housing center and a daycare. Mayor Adams said during his campaign there would be no new jails, but is following through with construction plans.

Ten people have been arrested in the protests so far. The arrests included state assembly candidate Grace Lee, state Senator candidate Vittoria Fariello, and Evelyn Yang, wife of former Presidential candidate Andrew Yang.

The $2.8 billion budget for the jail begs a similar question as to the$2 billion budget for the homeless adult population — why is it not being used to fix the existing problem instead of creating another?

The visible type of homelessness on the streets is typically more widely discussed than the other, quiet suffering not seen on the streets.

"Well, mentally, obviously, I was probably clinically depressed. There were many nights I cried myself to sleep. You know, I was just bleak. A man myself, as proud as myself and a man who had a career and went to college could end up in my situation," said a 52-year-old Korean American man who experienced a four-month stint of homelessness. To protect his privacy, I'll call him Henry.

When Henry lost his job, he found himself in a period of decline that eventually left him to find himself unhoused. Cultural pressures, pride, and stigma kept him from asking for help.

He calls the kind of homelessness he experienced "stealth" homeless since he was, mostly, able to rotate between the couches of members of the church. Otherwise, he would find a spot to sleep in his car, out of sight on some of Boston's most frigid nights.

Even though he was able to "keep up appearances" with his stealth homelessness, the people closest to him still knew about his plight. One of the most devastating parts was when the people he thought were friends started to turn their backs on him.

"All of a sudden I had this blemish…nobody treated me exactly the same as before."

Systemic racism exists. It creates and keeps housing inequalities. It keeps people moving from shelter to shelter. It contributes to racist ideologies, which fuels racial violence. Especially in times of fear when nativist Americans need to find an outlet for that anxiety.

Systemic racism exists to maintain power imbalances and oppression, and it does it by pitting people of color against each other. When it works, it keeps us divided and distracted. But, looking a little deeper, sometimes we realize, like in a horseshoe, the opposites end up touching and meeting at the same place.

Update: After the edition of this piece closed, New York City Mayor Eric Adams canceled plans for the proposed 231 Grand Shelter.