Residents at Nanoom House, a nonprofit shelter in Queens that serves predominantly Koreans, is facing potential fines from the city for housing violations that could threaten its survival. (Credit: Amir Khafagy)

When Yu Sung Ju first arrived in America from South Korea 26 years ago, he could not imagine he would end up living on the unforgiving streets of New York. Back home, Sung Ju was an accomplished soccer player. But at 61 years old, after losing his job in a restaurant and struggling with mental illness, he found himself among the growing number of older New Yorkers living in poverty—including Asian American seniors, who have the second-highest poverty rate in the state, at 22 percent, behind older Latino New Yorkers, a report last year found.

On the streets, Sung Ju suffered from crippling isolation and lived under constant threat of violence, which culminated in him being attacked by a fellow homeless man and hospitalized. Fortunately, Nanoom House, a nonprofit homeless shelter that serves predominantly Koreans, has been able to provide him with a roof over his head, but also a community. Nestled along a quiet suburban street in the Murray Hill section of Flushing, Queens, Nanoom House has converted a two-story single family home into a refuge for 20 or so homeless Korean immigrants like Sung Ju, who feel left unserved by the city’s cavernous shelter system. 

“Nannom House has restored my faith and has given me purpose,” he says. “Here I don’t feel like a burden but I feel I can be of service. The people here have become my family.” 

Yet, facing an onslaught of pressure from neighbors, the city and their landlord, the shelter is fighting for its existence. In November, the Department of Buildings (DOB) responded to several 311 complaints lodged by neighbors about the shelter, and inspectors charged the owners of the building—listed as Sunree Solid Art LLC, from which Nanoom rents the house—with a series of five violations, including one for converting the single-family home into a boarding house. According to the DOB, the fines could reach anywhere from $47,500 to $95,000, pending a hearing with the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). The hearing is currently scheduled for March 10.  

At a minimum, the fines threaten to shut down the shelter, which operates solely on small donations and yard sales. It also threatens to displace its residents, who have formed lasting bonds: Every day, the residents dine together, sing hymns together and conduct household chores. Rev. Sung-Won Park, executive director of Nanoom House, believes his shelter has filled a void in the Korean community. 

“Some of the residents don’t like the [city’s] homeless shelter because they are scared,” he says. “Most of the residents are elders and don’t feel safe. At least here they can be with the same culture and we become like a family.” 

Park first opened the doors of his church in 2012 as a temporary space for homeless Koreans who had no shelter during Hurricane Sandy. After the storm passed, he found it difficult to send people back into the streets. Realizing the need for a shelter specifically catering to the needs of Koreans, he formally established Nanoom House in 2013, with the help of divine inspiration and community donations, he says.

“Our existence is very important for the Korean American community,”  Park says. “People who are addicted, they came to the shelter and after our services, like anti-addiction seminars, they got free from addiction and got motivated to work. The average stay in our shelter is less than one year except for the really elderly.”

The threat to Nanoom comes as the city is facing an unprecedented housing crisis, with an estimated 80,000 people experiencing homelessness. That crisis extends to the Asian American community: Asians represented nearly 15 percent of people living in poverty in New York City in 2017, and have the highest poverty rate among any racial or ethnic group, at 24 percent. Despite these statistics, Asian community organizations are barely funded by the city. Between the fiscal years 2001 and 2014, Asian community organizations received only 1.4 percent of the city’s social service contracts and 1.5 percent of total contract dollars from the Department of Social Services, according to an analysis by the Asian American Federation.

Much of the funding disparity lies in the perception by policymakers that Asian Americans are financially prosperous, experts say. “We know that there is very little funding available for Asian families, compared to other populations such as African American and Hispanic families, because our society often views Asians as well-to-do and stereotype them as smart and successful,” says WuYu Cao, manager of residential programs for Womankind, a nonprofit formerly known as the New York Asian Women’s Center, which provides multilingual and culturally-responsive services to survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual violence. “People overlook the data that shows actually Asian families have a high rate of poverty in the city. That’s one of the reasons that causes the Asian populations to receive less funding.”

Assemblyman Ron Kim, who represents the Flushing district where Nanoom House is located, says he’s experienced firsthand the effect that the “model minority” stereotype has on decision-making in Albany. “Many elected officials perpetuate the thinking that Asians are very successful and all living in penthouses on Fifth Avenue, but they neglect to see the poverty we see here on the ground or the lines that form at my office for housing every single day.”

When contacted by City Limits, the Department of Buildings didn’t wish to comment on the specifics of the Nanoom House’s case, but stressed the necessity of enforcing building codes. “Property owners in New York City have a legal responsibility to provide safe, habitable conditions for their tenants,” said Andrew Rudansky, Press Secretary for NYC Department of Buildings. “The potentially unsafe living conditions caused by illegal conversions can pose a serious fire safety risk to not only tenants, but neighbors and first responders as well.”

Yet Kim, who has been working diligently to try to save Nanoom, believes the city has a responsibility to work with shelter so it can stay open. “The mayor has said he wanted to work with faith-based and community organizations to address homlessness. This non-profit has decided that they can’t wait any longer because there is a crisis and a lack of culturally-sensitive shelters,” says Kim. “They alone have raised money to help these homeless individuals. We shouldn’t be punishing them. The city should keep their word and find a solution instead of bankrupting them through these egregious fines.”

In December, as a response to the ongoing homelessness crisis, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled a plan that he says “will end street homelessness as we know it within the next five years.” The ambitious plan would, amongst other things, increase street outreach, create 1,000 new “Safe Haven” beds—transitional housing options—as well as 1,000 low-barrier permanent apartments for the homeless, in partnerships with nonprofits. In January, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson released his own plan promising many of the same things. 

Still, Asian American advocacy groups believe both plans continue to ignore the specific needs of their communities. Besides the disparity in funding, other barriers such as language, culture, and immigration status can impede city efforts to provide housing services to those in the community who need it, experts say.

  “We tend to take in a lot of Asian families that come into our facilities because there [are] not a lot of city-run facilities that have the language capacity and cultural practices for those communities,” says Cao. “For Asian American families there are a lot of challenges, especially language access. Many of the city’s facilities lack the appropriate translation materials, specifically in regards to housing. Also, in the current political environment, a lot of families are fearful in receiving services from the government because of immigration status.”

Seonae Byeon, lead housing organizer at MinKwon Center for Community Action, a nonprofit organization in Flushing that serves the needs of Korean Americans, says they’re glad to see lawmakers put increased focus on homelessness, but that more could be done.

“We are happy that the housing crisis and ending homelessness are being lifted up as a priority area, but more attention still needs to be given to issues that we face and how those are interconnected,” she says. “Combined with a lack of language translation support, lack of funding for the Asian community, misleading data, modern minority stereotypes, the poor and working-class Asian immigrant community have been struggling.”

Byeon believes that if the city were truly interested in ending homelessness, they would tackle its root causes instead of just masking its symptoms. “We need a holistic solution that covers just rezoning, preventing people from being evicted, fighting against unscrupulous predatory landlords, strengthening and enforcing existing rent laws, supporting the homeless population, and stopping the criminalization of the homeless population.”
Nanoom House, meanwhile has become an oasis for many Korean residents in need. As the shelter awaits its DOB hearing date, Park says he’s supplied the city with documentation proving they’ve addressed the housing violations and are making every effort to comply with building codes. Nanoom House does not dispute the violations, and has since removed all its illegally converted units and as well as removed a decrepit vehicle that was stored on the property, Park says.

Yet he is more concerned about appeasing his neighbors than the DOB. Some matters, such as asking neighbors to tolerate their yard-sale fundraisers, have become an ordeal. “There are a lot of people in this area that lived here before the Asians moved in and they are very strict. Every time we ask them for something they always say no. Even when some of our residents go outside to smoke, the neighbors complain,” Park says. “I tell our residents to not go inside the house from the front door. The neighbors are always making trouble.”

Both Park and Kim believe the attitudes of some neighbors might be racially-motivated. “Our office has spent a significant amount of time at the shelter getting to know the clients and the individuals who are living there, and we want to humanize these stories,” Kim says. “Once the community hears about a homeless shelter, the worst fears come to people’s minds. Instead of being compassionate they often react to their fears first. But these are our neighbors. They are human and we shouldn’t be judging them for what they are going through.”