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Half Moon Bay shooting survivors face uncertainty as housing vouchers expire


January 23, 2024 at 12:16 PM

A year after a gunman killed seven Chinese migrants who worked and lived at two farms in Half Moon Bay, California, advocates say many of the survivors are still facing uncertainty as their housing vouchers expire.

Social workers for the families who survived the massacre at the San Mateo County coastal city told NBC News that they are still confronting trauma, job insecurity and a lack of permanent housing. They hope in 2024, their city, county and state will bring them some final solutions.

The conditions at the two farms targeted in the shooting were “deplorable,” acknowledged California Gov. Gavin Newsom at the time, with pay as low as $9 an hour and workers residing in shipping containers. The tragedy not only left survivors and family members without income, but also displaced them from those residences, leaving dozens to start from scratch.

“The city and county have long known about the deplorable working and housing conditions of migrant workers,” said Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of advocacy group Chinese for Affirmative Action, who has met with survivors. “They have a duty and obligation to address these issues and to support the impacted families with their long term healing and recovery.”

During a remembrance ceremony on Sunday, Half Moon Bay’s Mayor Joaquin Jimenez updated the community on the steps being taken to support farmworkers in his city.

“Farmworkers have never been recognized,” he said during the vigil. “Their safety, their well-being, that includes decent housing.”

A development with 46 farmworker residences is underway, San Mateo County board supervisor Ray Mueller said at the vigil, and 18 of those units are now available to families. But in the meantime, many survivors feel like they’re in temporary housing limbo, advocates said.

Saoleng U, who is managing the cases of six surviving families through the outreach organization Self-Help for the Elderly, said that, while all of them currently stay in temporary subsidized housing, none of them feel quite at home yet. They’re on high alert, she said, unsure if and when they’ll need to move. And as their year-long vouchers near their end, they worry about where they’ll end up.

“The group of families that we take care of, only half are still working in the two farms,” she said. “The rest are either too elderly or too disabled to work anymore … For these survivors, they could come up with a three year subsidy plan, so even if they don’t get into an affordable housing project, while they’re waiting they have some security.”

U said she’s also trying to understand how these first 18 units will be prioritized when all their clients are facing great need.

“How do you pick the lucky 18 when there are 40 families,” she said. “We’re worried that they’ll get their hopes high and then after the build this first building and a lot of people can’t get in, they’ll get totally deflated and disappointed again.”

Mayor Jimenez did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. Gov. Newsom said the state will continue to aid the farmworker community. The two farms are also both facing workplace safety citations from the state.

“One year since the Half Moon Bay shootings, we solemnly remember the victims and double down on our vision of being a state without prejudice, where every community is safe from the ravages of gun violence,” said in a statement to NBC News. “California will continue to support our farmworker community.”

The workers themselves are still working through trauma, said Anni Chung, president and CEO of Self-Help, and the anniversary of the shooting stings for them.

“They all lived together, they shared everything,” she said. “When they think of them, they feel so sad.”

A committee made up of community members is working on a permanent memorial for the victims, NBC Bay Area reported. The group is also in talks about the work environment faced by migrant farmers and how it can be improved.

The farmworkers themselves are hesitant to speak on their working conditions in fear of losing their jobs, U said, but more resources need to be added pre-emptively to meet them where they are and reach out to others. The state should be more proactive in making sure the farms where they work have appropriate pay and living conditions, too, she said.

“A lot of the elected officials acknowledge that they weren’t even aware that there were Chinese farmworkers that work in Half Moon Bay,” she said. “They are very isolated … We shouldn’t wait for another mass shooting to find out how they are managing.”

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