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Coronavirus Update: San Francisco's Densely Populated Chinatown Struggles With Social Distancing

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- One of Chinatown's charms is it's bustle. The tight knit community is known for being just that, small and dense. During COVID-19 it's very essence is now it's greatest threat.

"We have got to protect San Francisco's Chinatown from the spread," Malcolm Yeung said.

Yeung is the Executive Director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. He is especially worried about people living in SRO's. SRO stands for "single rooms occupancy," the type of hotel that frequently house low-income families in the neighborhood. SRO's usually they have only about 80 square feet of space. They make up a large portion of Chinatown.

"Single room occupancy hotels -- in many ways -- are like living on a cruise ship," Yeung said.

Yeung introduced KPIX 5 to Yong Yu Lei. She lives with her husband and three boys in a single room on Grant Street. He translated our interview.

"She says the room that she lives in is very, very small that room. They have two beds and it's just a very small space," Yeung said.

Lei's story offers a glimpse into the inequity that existed before this crisis and is now being exacerbated by it.

"If you're asking me whether I feel safe in an SRO, sometimes it's hard to answer that question because I've been living there so long that I'm used to it now. But, you know, let me just ask you if you were living in a space with so many people sitting on top of each other, would you feel healthy? I don't think I do," Lei said.

Lei is one of hundreds of people lining up every day outside New Asia Restaurant to pick up free food for their families living in SRO's courtesy of the CCDC. Many of the people in line used to work at restaurants in Chinatown and have since been let go.

"We thought that there was a double benefit in this too, by using a community based restaurant. It could get their staff back to work, you know, all of whom were furloughed or laid off even at the front end of the shelter in place," Yeung said.

Second only to Manhattan, San Francisco's Chinatown is the densest neighborhood in the entire country. About 35,000 people live in a 20 square block radius. Yeung's program has been able to help 150 families so far, but they know the need is much greater. He estimates there are as many as 8,000 SRO's in this neighborhood alone.

"We need help," Yeung said.

The program is largely dependent on volunteers. People like Kitty Fong, who four days a week picks up meals for seniors who can't leave their homes.

"So it's really unfortunate that during the shelter in place, the seniors have to be trapped in their home. It's kind of like almost like a prison for them," Fong said.

Volunteers like Fong are doing more than just delivering food. They're also performing daily wellness checks where they've noticed something else spreading among seniors: loneliness.

"These wellness checks are designed to take five minutes per call. We're finding our staff talking to seniors for upwards of half an hour, just because they want that kind of close contact and conversation," Yeung said.

The food being sent to families is dim sum. The literal translation for that phrase is "to touch your heart." Yeung says that's exactly what's being delivered.

"This program really is a product of people's love, you know? It's really kind of reassuring to see that. And we're going to need that love of each other and of the city and of our communities to get through this," Yeung said.

Facebook kick-started the fundraising process with a $30,000 initial donation, Yeung estimates food expenses alone will cost them $765,000 through June, which is money they don't have right now. Anyone interested in helping should visit the organization's website,


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