People at a prayer vigil for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in San Diego in March. Photo by Chris Stone

While much of San Diego County opened in June after the coronavirus pandemic forced so much of our lives to lock down, the Serving Seniors’ Gary and Mary West Wellness Center celebrated its full re-opening after 481 days being closed earlier this week on July 12.

While we were able to continue serving meals to our community’s most vulnerable low-income and homeless seniors through delivery and pickup, the crucial role played by socialization, activities, and services such as online access through our CyberCafe weren’t available.

We learned how much our clients missed us during Monday’s celebration. Our expected event attendance tripled our expectations, to the point we had to shut the doors or risk the ire of the fire marshal. It was heartwarming to hear excited voices and see happy faces again.

Times of San Diego readers might be surprised by the large number of Asian-American seniors among our clients. One-quarter of Serving Seniors clients identify as Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and the majority are native Mandarin Chinese speakers. It’s become vital for us to have Mandarin language translators at our key events.

It was also a relief to see so many of these clients personally, because of the added risks so many of them experienced during the pandemic due to the explosion of Asian-American hate crime incidents. A disturbing new report from the Office of the State Attorney General shows California’s Asian-American population is not immune.

According to the report, hate crimes in California increased 31% last year overall. Attacks against Asian Americans increased 107%. Brutal assaults of Asian-American seniors in New York, Atlanta, and Oakland made national news.

San Diego was not immune from this trend. District Attorney Summer Stephan filed hate crime charges in three cases with Asian-American victims in 2020 after none the previous two years. Her office received tips on 13 such hate crimes. Most of those hate incidents were substantially motivated by the blaming of Asians for the pandemic. A hate crime is defined as a criminal act motivated at least in part by a characteristic such as race, gender or religion.

We were pleased to learn the new state budget signed by Governor Gavin Newsom this week includes unprecedented levels of funding to help combat anti-Asian hate crimes. Still, it is a sad commentary that it is so badly needed.

Older Asian Americans are especially vulnerable due to their limited English skills. As a result, they are less able to quickly recognize and defend themselves from attack. They are also far less likely to report a hate crime.

When these older adults have regular social contact and services provided by organizations like Serving Seniors, we are better able to monitor, guide, and support this vulnerable population.  We can help educate and protect them and encourage them to report crimes to law enforcement. We can collaborate with community leaders, build trust, and stand with them as allies.

During the pandemic, one of our Asian-American clients confessed to me he had been knocked down on the street and beaten because he is Chinese, suffering life-threatening injuries. Fortunately, thanks to excellent medical care, he has regained his health and attended our reopening celebration.  It was heartbreaking to hear his story. He lives just blocks from our Wellness Center. He did nothing to warrant this vicious attack.

The San Diego District Attorney’s office has set up a hotline and email for reporting hate crimes against Asian Americans and anyone else targeted due to race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. The public can call 619-515-8805, or email hatecrime@sdcda.org.

The recent rising incidences of physical attacks towards Asian Americans, especially vulnerable seniors, are grim reminders of the disparities, injustices, and violence experienced by the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities from all walks of life. Serving Seniors mourns these deaths and stands in solidarity with the Asian-American community, and we strongly advocate for building community coalitions and practices that protect their rights and safety.

To learn more, get connected, support anti-hate organizations, share safety tips and take action, visit the Serving Seniors website for a list of resources

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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