Betty Chinn doesn’t sleep much.
Each day before sunrise until well into the night, this petite woman in her 70s covers a lot of ground—tending to hundreds of people living in homelessness along California’s north coast.
“I tell myself, ‘Time to go, somebody needs your help,’” said Chinn, a Chinese immigrant who’s lived in Humboldt County for almost 50 years.
She starts preparing meals in the very early hours. Throughout the day, she drives a mobile food truck to 11 locations, serving those struggling to survive.
“I forge a personal connection with them,” Chinn said. “And then ask them what they need, how can I help them.”
She’s been at it for nearly four decades, expanding her efforts well beyond meals and starting her nonprofit. She and her group operate three shelters—one just for families, where Chinn often sleeps and remains on call at all hours.
During the day, she also runs a center where people who’ve fallen through the cracks can receive job training, resources and other support to help change their lives.
Her tireless efforts are fueled by a desire to help people struggling like she once was—and to give back to the country that welcomed her with open arms when she had nowhere to go.
“American people were so kind to me,” Chinn said. “When I come to United States, (it was) the first time I had experienced people smiling at me and not knowing me. They just looked at me and smiled, and that stuck in my heart.”
Chinn says that after years of torture and abuse under the Mao Zedong regime in China, it was America that gave her hope again.
Now a US citizen, she she arrived in the late ’60s and was taken in by older siblings in the Bay Area. Later, she married a university professor, and they started a family. Though her new life was comfortable, she says she never forgot the hunger and pain she experienced as a child.
“When my son was in Kindergarten, one of his classmates was a homeless girl,” Chinn said. “She always stared at my son’s lunch pail, and my son always gave her something to eat. I felt like I (could) do something. I can cook. So that’s how I started.”
Her program now feeds hundreds of people every day.
The organization also partners with area hospitals and mobile clinics to provide medical services, offers hygiene services and operates an after-school program for children whose families are experiencing homelessness.
“Each day is a new day for me, a new beginning for me,” said Chinn, who takes no salary. “And when I feed somebody, I fulfill myself. … I help myself heal. And each day I find another piece of my life.”
CNN’s Allie Torgan spoke with Chinn about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: You’ve spoken about the persecution your family experienced in China. What do you remember about your childhood?
Betty Chinn: I was born in a very good family. I’m one of 12 kids. And then in the 1960s, they had the Cultural Revolution. My mom was a US citizen and a Western educator. My mom believed in God, religion. Because my parents had religion and education, my family was a target for the government.
I was separated from my family and I lived on the street by myself. I had to wear a sign on my neck that said, “I’m a child of the devil.” I had nothing to eat, hungry all the time. Torture, separation from my family, abandoned, betrayal … this all happened at a very young age.
My sister took me out of the country … and then to Hong Kong. I did not know my birthday.
Each day when I get up in the morning, I get moving, that’s my birthday. I am celebrating my birthday every single day when I can move and I can breathe. I have my freedom. That’s the way I look at it.
CNN: You set up one of your shelters like a village. How does that work?
Chinn: The village is built using shipping containers. Each one is 10-by-10 for two people in one room, and there are two twin beds in there. The city provided the property for me and (local) businesses donated shipping containers. Community volunteers cut the doors and windows in the containers.
The homeless come into our village. It is a place for them to look for a job to support themselves and detach from the homeless lifestyle. The title is Emergency Shelter. We have 24/7 staff and 40 people living here.
I provide breakfast, lunch and dinner. I have Mobile Medical come in. We have laundry services, haircuts, a library. I only give them 90 days. If you just sleep in and do nothing, our program doesn’t meet your need.
CNN: You’ve earned the respect of city officials and are well-regarded in the community. In the past, some locals challenged your efforts. How do people feel now?
Chinn: I think that most of the people really support me. But some think I create a homeless community here. I’m a target. They yell at me and scream at me, say really hurtful things.
Lately, it’s a different ball game. The city and the community really support me. One of the business owners who first complained recently gave a donation to me. He said, “What you are doing is amazing. You are not enabling the homeless, you are helping lift them up.”
We take our freedom for granted here, and if I can be a voice, then that is what I will do.
Want to get involved? Check out the Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation website and see how to help.
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