LIFE in Los Angeles is not only notoriously steep on the average, but it also exists on the very extremes of wealth and poverty.
It’s a city where, on one side, people reside in unbelievable mansions with sweeping lawns, incredible views of the city and more bedrooms and bathrooms than any one family needs. LA is the city of dreams, colonized as the center for creative ambition and financial opportunity.
But only a few miles away exists an invisible community of displaced peoples who, through an array of circumstances and real-life hardships, can barely find a safe place to sleep on any given night.
John Hwang, an Angeleno and “long-time community advocate working with the homeless in Los Angeles,” originally posted on his Facebook page on Oct. 25 a video of him and his family exploring Olvera Street in downtown LA.
While out and about, the family came across an elderly Pinay street vendor by the name of Nora selling various knick-knacks, accessories like gloves and masks, fruit, cookies and other things. According to Hwang, her stand “hardly saw any customers” and one of his sons offered her a dollar to buy something from her stand, to her surprise.
“She was so touched and surprised, she gave my kids so many things; gloves, masks, a bag [of] cookies, a Halloween costume…she refused to accept any money,” he wrote.
According to Hwang’s Facebook post, Nora told him, “I’ve already lived my life. I just want to make the kids happy.”
The story was spread across Facebook among LA residents, including a group called SoCal Filipinos, a group that seeks to spread positivity among Filipinos within and outside of Southern California.
Hwang and a friend, Jessica Bullock, then organized a GoFundMe page to help Nora out with expenses. Nora doesn’t want to accept financial help, according to both Hwang and Bullock, and she has enough money saved “to move into a place in December” but both Hwang and Bullock want to find a place for Nora to stay until then and provide rent stability.
With Thanksgiving coming up, many shelters in the city are full and resources for displaced people are often spread thin around this time of the year. And the added difficulties of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nora’s chances of finding city-wide resources are scant.
Hwang said she doesn’t want to stay in a motel “saying that it’s expensive” and wasteful, but she is open to other forms of help.
Hwang said in an update post about Nora that “She’s open to the idea of staying at someone’s property. She doesn’t want to be inside as she doesn’t want to be an inconvenience. She is willing to pay $200 to stay in someone’s backyard. She will put up her tent and she said she can even work as their part-time gardener.”
To those who may want to seek Nora out in Chinatown, Hwang warned the public that she may be hesitant to accept help.
In authentic Filipino and Asian fashion, she keeps refusing money from Hwang but the hope is that he raises enough money — $4,000 — to keep her afloat and allow her to start anew with reliable housing and basic necessities.
Though the Asian homeless population in America is relatively low (according to citywide and statewide surveys of the homeless population) compared to other homeless communities of color, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more people like Nora living under freeway overpasses and in potentially unhygienic situations.
To most people who are privileged enough to have a home and relative food and financial stability, the diverse community of displaced people is invisible, and rash judgments about the individual people we see as street vendors and living in encampments widen the barrier of basic human empathy and care.
Hwang’s Facebook page is full of documented, Humans of New York-like interactions he has with strangers in LA including displaced people, sharing the brief but meaningful conversations he has with a population people tend to ignore out of fear.
Those of Filipino descent or those who know Filipinos won’t be surprised by Nora’s qualms about accepting help and her insistence on providing as much as she can for others.
Very little is currently known about Nora through Hwang’s interactions with her, but basic human kindness is a commodity that is rare to find in a country and society that is more divisive than ever. Filipinos all have that tita, nanay, or lola who is almost aggressively hospitable and accommodating to the point where they put others first and themselves last.
But people like Hwang, Bullock and the dozens of members of the SoCal Filipinos Facebook page who continue to express support for Nora believe that it’s a duty of the public, particularly of Filipinos, to pay it forward to this previously unseen but giving person.
On the GoFundMe page, which currently has $3,559 as of this writing, Nora said, “‘I don’t want to cry. I feel unsafe out here, but I need to be strong.”
For those who want to get in touch with the organizers to offer their properties for Nora, please visit the GoFundMe page and reach out to the organizer.