To honor all of humanity by providing direct responses to immediate needs and helping the homeless achieve the dignity needed to return to society as contributing members.
Why She Does It
Betty is fond of saying that all she does on behalf of Humboldt County’s homeless isn’t her work, it’s her passion. That passion was born in Betty’s childhood, when, at the age of 7, she was turned out of her family’s home in China’s Guangdong province during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Targeted because of her parents’ wealth and religious beliefs, Chinn spent four years homeless on the streets. Alone with her mother jailed and her siblings hauled off to labor camps, she found refuge in a garbage dump where she foraged for food. Mao’s Red Guard forbade Chinn from speaking to people and hung a wooden sign around her neck with a wire that read “child from the devil”. She was ostracized and beaten and years later would have to relearn how to speak. After four years of living like this-family members tortured and killed in front of her-Chinn and three of her siblings fled, hiking hundreds of miles before swimming across the Pearl River Delta to freedom in Hong Kong.
After emigrating to the United States, Chinn married now retired Humboldt State University physics professor, Leung Chinn, and relocated to Eureka where they have raised two successful sons. One day while volunteering at her son’s elementary school, Chinn noticed a student who was living out of his car with his family. Betty’s mission started with cooking extra food at mealtimes to take to this family. However, she soon found more families in need. In time, Betty was feeding hundreds of people breakfast and dinner with a hot cup of coffee, all out of her own pocket. This passion became all consuming as Betty would rise before dawn to start cooking and be out distributing food until well after dark, making extra trips with rain gear and extra blankets when the weather soured and the need grew. But Betty would insist she was getting more out of this work than she was putting in- giving back to the city and the country that welcomed her with the freedom to start a new life. And at its core, Betty’s mission has always been about doing for others what was never done for her, showing kindness and compassion to each individual. But most importantly, ensuring that they know they matter, at least to someone.
Betty is able to do so much because she is backed by a growing community of people. What started as one woman’s paycheck has grown like a vine to include people from all sections of society who donate what they can: some sleeping bags here and a box of craft supplies there. A handful of local businesses also make regular donations, some daily, some weekly, others whenever Betty needs a bus ticket, hotel room, or something else for one of her people. As Betty likes to say, she is the ‘middle man,’ simply helping people realize the joy of giving and making sure everyone gets what they need. At a time of increasing need, the community is coming together to sustain Betty’s growing endeavor.
When Betty takes on a new project, contractors volunteer their services, businesses donate supplies and people line up to help. Community members offer their time to help cook, while others sort clothes, pick up donations, organize events, and more. Over the last decade, Betty’s mission has become a community mission.
The ripple effects of the first two decades of Betty Chinn’s work are incalculable as she helped thousands survive homelessness in Eureka while getting hundreds more off the streets, rebuilding lives and reconnecting families. Children she once drove to school from homeless encampments hidden in the bushes have now graduated from college and have families of their own. As word of Betty’s efforts has spread and attention to her work has grown, so has her mission.
After being given the 2008 Minerva Award by then California First Lady Maria Shriver, she used the $25, 000 grant that came with it as seed money to build Eureka’s first free public shower facility under the mantra, “Providing Dignity One Shower at a Time.” After being honored with the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Barack Obama in 2010, Betty started dreaming of opening a “Betty’s House,” a type of central location where she could help clients keep warm and fed while connecting them with a variety of services housed under one roof. Four years later, this dream culminated in the Betty Kwan Chinn Day Center which houses Betty’s commercial kitchen, helps clients connect with services, jobs and housing, while also offering after school care, wellness courses, and educational programming for homeless children. In addition to American recognition, Betty has received commendations from China and is hailed as the “Hong Kong Angel.”
In 2016, Betty opened Betty’s House, a family shelter that provides transitional housing up to 8 families at a time, giving them the stability, services, and support needed to find a permanent place to live. The shelter’s downstairs, operated in partnership with Providence Health Care, offers space for up to 10 homeless people recently discharged from the hospital to convalesce.
Also in 2016, as the city of Eureka was working to clear is largest homeless encampment from a greenbelt near the bay, Betty partnered with the Humboldt Coalition for Property Rights to convert some old Connex shipping containers into a housing village. Betty’s Blue Angel Village now shelters up to 40 people at a time while offering intensive wrap around services aimed at transitioning them into permanent housing situations. It is one of few shelters on the West coast that allows animals.
In 2020 during the COVID pandemic Betty opened Betty’s Annex, a shelter for women and children.