WESTMINSTER — The stories that led the gray house at the corner of Wyoming and Olive streets to become the Vietnamese community's first transitional home for seniors are quite sad. Some of the elderly were wandering the streets of Little Saigon, knocking on the doors of friends and acquaintances, asking for a place to spend the night. Others were abandoned by their children who found taking care of them too much of a chore. Then, there were the ones who considered suicide so they would no longer be a burden to their kids.
Having heard firsthand the heartbreaking stories throughout the years, Dzung Tu, founder of the Asian Senior Citizens Assn. of Westminster, knew that what some of these immigrants needed in times of trouble was a temporary place to go.
Beginning this month, they will have such a place when Tu's group opens a three-bedroom house the city has donated where Vietnamese seniors can stay until they find permanent homes.
"We've waited a long time for a place like this," said 81-year-old Nga Bich Nguyen, one of the first seniors who will stay at the house. "It gives us peace of mind to know that there is a place we could turn to if we needed it."
The house, small and unassuming, has room for only four or five people. But it is a dream years in the making for a community that has struggled to adhere to cultural customs--taking care of the old--while adjusting to Western mores and values of independence.
"It's getting harder, but we in the Vietnamese community are still trying to keep the spirit of family," said Hien Nguyen, chairman of the association. "We have to take charge of our duty to restore the good traditions, and having this transitional house is a good first step."
Everything about the house, from the bright marigolds outside to the kitchen's warm-toned floor tiles, comes from either the support of city officials or tireless efforts of volunteers.
The city, which has owned it for many years, spent $30,000 to renovate the house, which two years ago was boarded-up and overrun by weeds. A community group, Volunteers Exchange, oversaw the construction. Vietnamese business owners paid for most of the decor, and others in the community gave furniture and are helping with the upkeep.
"Many of us old people have needed a place like this for a long time," said an 85-year-old woman who has been offered a room at the house.
The woman, whose children had told her they did not want her to live with them and who rents a room from another 85-year-old Vietnamese woman, asked not to be identified so her children would not be angry at her for talking about family problems. At times, she has been homeless and dependent on other Vietnamese who gave her a room and food.
"It's very hard to grow old in this country, especially if you are an immigrant who is too old to drive and who can't speak English and must depend on your children for everything," the woman said.
Nga Bich Nguyen, who lives with her daughter's family in Placentia, has never been homeless. But like other Vietnamese elders who get lonely and depressed when they stay at home by themselves, Nguyen seeks the company of others her age in Little Saigon as often as she can.
Her daughter usually takes her there in the morning, but sometimes, Nguyen doesn't have a ride home. On such nights, she has stayed with casual acquaintances until her daughter could pick her up the next day.
Now, Nguyen said, she could spend such nights at the transitional house.
"I used to just wander around after a day [in Little Saigon]. I would go from a friend's house to another friend's house to see if I could sleep there that night," Nguyen said. "Now, I don't have to any more. I could go to a place I know is safe, where there are Vietnamese who are there for each other."