Koreatown group marks 20 years of feeding homeless

November 14, 2014
5...Jihee, 9, helps feed the homeless.

The volunteers, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles, a Catholic charity, have served breakfast to the homeless on Skid Row every Saturday morning since 1994. (Photo – Jimmy Cheng)

LOS ANGELES — A dedicated band of unsung heroes has built what homeless people say is one of the most reliable hot meal programs on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

“It’s a tradition,” said Charles, a Latino homeless man. “You know they’re going to be here.”

Joseph K. Ahn is a lay leader of the Korean ministry at St. Basil Catholic Church in Los Angeles Koreatown, but he learned of the ministry’s little-known program only after it had been operating for 13 years.

“Shiwa ‘Ronald’ Kahng started this program in 1994,” Ahn said. “But Mr. Kahng and the other volunteers never publicized their good works, so hardly anyone at our church knew about it.”

That has changed. On Nov. 22, the St. Basil Korean volunteers will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the meal program. The volunteers, members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Council of Los Angeles, a Catholic charity, have served breakfast to the homeless on Skid Row every Saturday morning since 1994.

On a recent Saturday at 5 a.m., gleaming Mercedes, BMW’s and SUV’s streamed into the trash-strewn street near 231 Winston Street. Those Korean volunteers were greeted at the shelter by Ahn, 57, who took over the leadership of the group in 2011. He has been a member of the group since 2007.

6...Korean Vincentians 2014

The group has 20 core members and 65 occasional members. Half of those occasional members are children aged 9 to 17. (Photo – Jimmy Cheng)

A line of homeless people, which began forming at around 4:45 a.m., snaked around the block.

“People on Skid Row like it when we can count on something, because there’s not a lot we can count on,” explained Al, who biked to the meal line.

Al and Charles — both about 40 years old — declined to give their last names because they don’t want people to know they are homeless.

At 5:45 a.m. on the dot, the volunteers began serving breakfast: an unexpected combo of turkey hot dogs, homemade chicken-noodle soup, and pastries. The pastries are day-old baked goods donated by Paris Baguette in Koreatown and Bliss Bakery in Little Tokyo.

Since volunteers prepare the food off-site, program leaders chose food that would stay hot and fresh, but some were a bit confused about being served hot dogs for breakfast. Nevertheless, they were grateful for the hot food.

“Maybe they think that’s what Americans like,” Charles mused.

In another unexpected twist, a casual orchestra of Korean American teenagers played classical music as they filed by the serving table.

“When I leave here, I feel like I did something great,” said Joshua Kim, 16, leader of the Bliss Music Ensemble, which was formed specifically for the meal program. “I just like helping people.”

 Two times a year, the Social Event Music Organization — a larger, formal, Korean American teen-age orchestra — donates its services during the breakfast service.

On Nov. 22, a ceremony will be held at 6:15 AM sharp to celebrate the program’s 20th anniversary. Sureung America, the American subsidiary of a Korean company, has recently donated $2,500 to the program.

Part of the proceeds will go toward a special breakfast to celebrate Thanksgiving. The menu will feature sliced turkey, sliced ham, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, fresh fruit and pumpkin pie.

Word is already spreading on the streets of Skid Row about the upcoming Thanksgiving Meal at the Cardinal Manning Center.

“The Korean volunteers are model Vincentians,” said Njambi Kingori, deputy director of the society’s social services department, which runs the Cardinal Manning Center. “For 20 years, they have consistently, without fail, come to serve the residents and the community at large, a very nice breakfast. I think they are exemplary.”


This story was provided by Kay Hwangbo, a public relations consultant to Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Los Angeles Council