A Community Living Room For Immigrant Families

Jan 25, 2018, 3:00 PM, Posted by

Chinatown is one of San Francisco’s densest neighborhoods, forcing many to live in cramped single-room occupancy hotels known as SROs. The Chinatown YMCA has developed a program to help families in SRO housing build a sense of community with others facing similar circumstances.


Dinnertime is stressful for Ruiyi Li, a married mother of two who lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

She has to wait in line for almost an hour to use a communal kitchen in the building where her family rents a single room for $400 a month.

Then there’s the problem of how to eat the meal. The family’s tight dwelling is slightly wider and longer than the size of a double bed, with no space for a table. Li, her husband, son and daughter must sit one next to the other on the edge of the lower half of a bunk bed, balancing bowls in their laps.

“Dinner is quick and fast,” Li says using the dialect spoken in her southern Chinese hometown of Toishan. “It doesn’t even feel like the family is eating together.”

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But once a week at the Chinatown YMCA, she can share a meal with her family, sitting at a table with chairs. “It’s so nice just to be able to sit face-to-face at dinner,” Li says. It’s a small matter, but it makes a big difference to families living in what are known as Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, originally meant to house immigrant bachelors a century ago. 

The 106-year-old YMCA in the heart of Chinatown has put out the welcome mat for families who live in these buildings. Twice a week, the Y opens up its kitchen to SRO families, allowing residents to volunteer to cook dinner for up to 60 people. Afterwards, as parents linger to chat in a community room, children can take off laughing to run and play in another area, something they can’t do in their SRO hotels. Li, 37, relishes the chance of just being together as a family.

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Since they started going to the YMCA a year ago, Li has seen a profound change in her two-year-old daughter, Amy. The toddler used to be terrified of strangers and clung to her mother’s leg. Li attributed her extreme bashfulness to growing up sequestered in a room no bigger than a walk-in closet. Their home is so small that Amy had no space to learn to crawl and went right from standing to walking.

But on a recent evening at the YMCA, Amy giggled and squealed with other children in a playroom. “She’s become more like a normal child now,” her mother says with relief.

Three years ago, Li left Guangdong province to join her husband, who works as a cook in San Francisco. In China, where she shared a three-story house with her parents, her son, Andy, had a separate room to study. But in the SRO, they all share one cramped space. Their room is wallpapered from the floor to ceiling with possessions. No inch of space is wasted. A wooden board, suspended by rope from the upper bunk, holds stacks of clothing. There’s a tiny corner sink and a small refrigerator. The family shares a three-stall bathroom with the 30 other families on their floor.

Li now works part-time for the YMCA and also serves as a family organizer for the Chinese Progressive Association. That group is part of a citywide coalition to help residents, called the SRO Families United Collaborative. At the weekly meal, Li joined other women and men in the center’s spacious kitchen to prepare a spread of stir-fried oxtail, cabbage, rice, soup and sliced watermelon. The volunteers pushed together pairs of folding tables with enough seats for nine people. Dinner was served buffet style. As soon as Amy and Andy finished, they took off with other children. “The space is so big that the kids can play and we can just sit around a big table chatting,” Li says.

The YMCA has received back-to-back annual grants of $170,000 from the city to reach out to SRO families. According to a community report in 2015, Chinatown has about 450 families living in SRO residences. The YMCA was able to work with 50 families in 2017, enrolling children in classes like swimming, dance, or karate, while offering workshops for parents on everything from parenting skills to American etiquette. Families also go on Y-sponsored outings, such as boating at a park or a weekend camping trip. 

Most are recent arrivals from China and Hong Kong working in minimum-wage jobs. They end up in SRO units because housing options in San Francisco are limited and expensive. Median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $3,370. 

The 2015 report found that the crowded conditions were affecting the health of SRO families, who reported respiratory ailments as well as complaints about sleep deprivation and a lack of sunlight in their homes. The Y's outreach program gives families the sense of belonging they need to raise a family that can thrive.

Learn more about how the Chinatown YMCA is supporting families in San Francisco.


about the authors

Jennifer Lin is a former foreign and national correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer who now writes books and makes documentaries.

Kari Lee is the executive director at the Chinatown YMCA, a branch of the YMCA of San Francisco. Kari has been in Chinatown for over 15 years and with the YSF for 24 years. As a 2nd generation Chinese American with parents who were born and raised in SF Chinatown, she is honored to support immigrant families as part of a healthy thriving community.