Westminster, CA - May 06: Homeless man Tam Nguyen passes time in his car in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community Friday, May 6, 2022 in Westminster, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Tam Nguyen in the car where he sleeps in Little Saigon. Nguyen grew up in Vietnam and came to the U.S. to look for his white father. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The bargain buyers walked out of the fruit shop with tote bags full of pale brown longan and hairy red rambutan, barely glancing at the face of the store's owner.

He gestured to people that he was thirsty with a drink and a finger to his throat. He wanted money for a bowl of noodles.

He used to be a car salesman, but then he started using meth.

He has been roaming outside of Little Saigon's fabric stores and takeout eateries for the past five years.

Many of the people who lived through the Vietnam War came to the U.S. as refugees in their teens. Familiar foods and the ease of communicating in their native language have drawn them to Little Saigon.

They used to sleep in alleys along Bolsa Avenue. Locals say that the number of them has increased since the beginning of the Pandemic.

Homeless man Oliver Nguyen stands for a portrait in an alley near Moran Street in the Little Saigon community.
Oliver Nguyen, 28, lives on the streets of Little Saigon and hopes to make it as a singer. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

They end up on the streets due to mental illness or drugs.

They are outliers in a culture with family ties, career achievement and a strong work ethic.

They can be shamed into being isolated.

Vietnam wants to be associated with success. They don't like being poor. Debt is avoided by them. "Why wouldn't they stay in touch with us?" asked Charlie, who was homeless after being unable to work as a manicurist.

He has lost contact with his children and is too ashamed to ask for help.

He wondered why his oldest son would want anyone to know about his father.

The poor among them evoke a mixture of emotions.

Southland Integrated Services case worker Ngoc Khanh Banh meets Tam Nguyen for the first time to share information.
Ngoc Khanh Banh of Southland Integrated Services, left, tells Tam Nguyen about the services her agency provides for low-income people. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

In a tight-knit refugee community that prospered after coming to this country with nothing, the sight of fellow Vietnamese living on the streets can lead to judgement about how they ended up in this situation.

Some people give money and food to homeless people to start off the lunar new year.

Teresa gave on her birthday. She said she was told not to give so much food away because it became a habit. People are lazy and don't take care of themselves.

There is a homeless man outside of a fruit shop. They can't devote a lot of time to changing our lives.

He thought that refugees knew what it was like to be stranded. Many of them stare past us.

According to a May count, 3% of the unsheltered people in Orange County are Asian.

More than 40% of the unsheltered population have substance abuse issues, and nearly 30% struggle with mental health issues, according to the count.

Homeless men in an alley near Moran Street in Little Saigon. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The city can't afford to fund homeless housing on its own. A temporary space with beds, showers and lockers is being planned by the city.

Ho said that he understands how business owners feel. If you keep giving them money, they will come back. We need other solutions.

Two liaison officers and a civilian case manager are part of a homeless outreach unit led by a police commander.

Some of the workers are always asking the same questions. He doesn't want to get mixed up with the government.

They have a lot of rules. They look for drugs.

Food stamps are a good supplement for people who are homeless. They like to have jasmine rice, fish sauce and salt on hand when they receive the payments.

They sometimes barter or resell groceries for items such as a Bunsen burner which they use to cook dishes such as vegetable soup over rice.

Tran's parents try to find him a few times a year so they can give him some money. He said he couldn't overcome his addiction.

He wiped his cheek on a sweatshirt that had been unwashed for over a month. I sometimes think I don't.

Even if some people won't accept help, the city needs to offer housing and mental health assistance, according to a councilman.

The homeless outreach team is understaffed. Even as the city faces staffing cuts and possible bankruptcy, Manzo and others are working to hire at least one more police officer for the team.

The former manicurist has been sleeping in an abandoned car in an alley for months.

He found a large "Janet Nguyen for State Senate" poster and put it over his car and a faded couch to shade it.

He stepped out of his shelter at 1 p.m. and immediately donned his cowboy hat.

He had just fallen asleep. He and his friends take turns standing guard to protect themselves from criminals.

He said that they have been jumped a number of times after dark.

He came to the US in his 20s and married the daughter of a successful restaurant family.

He said he led his wife to divorce him because he dated several women. He moved to Missouri to work on a meat assembly line after losing custody of his son.

He became a manicurist in 1994. He had more than one child. Customers had complaints about his mistakes.

He was unable to hold down a job and was forced to live outdoors.

People are using drugs. He said that some people are not. There are no big plans for us. We want to stay safe.

Jenny moved between storefronts with a shady spot to sit, holding plastic bags full of shabby shoes and brimmed hats.

She came to Arizona as a high school student. She left her job at a ceramics factory due to her mental health issues.

"I don't think people will understand my situation," said the man.

A manager at a mental health service for low-income people said that mental health is a taboo topic in immigrant families.

You would think that family members wouldn't ask questions, but that's not the case.

Banh was the first person to visit the homeless people of Little Saigon.

She said she was not here for judgement. I'm here to pay attention. We'll try to help if you tell me what's going on.

The longest-standing homeless person in the area is thought to be 54-year-old Nguyen.

He was raised by his mother in Vietnam, not knowing his father was a white man.

He came to the U.S. in hopes of connecting with his father's family. He was homeless after running out of money.

His bedroom is often a Honda. He cuts his own hair, repairs bikes to resell, washes cars, and sweeps the pavement outside shops for money.

He thinks medical situations are riskier than life on the street. I'm dependent on myself.

He can give to others in the same way.

The back seat of Oliver's car was given to him as a sleeping spot when he showed up in Little Vietnam.

The younger person is asking for survival tips. He battled crystal meth and other drugs after graduating from high school. He was sent to rehab many times by his mom. He was on the streets after she died.

He does odd jobs to make ends meet. He has tattoos on his face that say "Love one another" and "Good fortune."

He dreams of becoming a musician and his family and friends always praised his singing voice.

A friend he met on the internet helped him produce a demo called "Let Love Nguyen", which is a play on his name.

I don't want your life to end in vain. I have to victory. He wrote in a notebook his son's name.

The story was originally published in the LA Times.