Six Months Later – A Look Back at Our Community’s Half Moon Bay Response

On January 23, 2023 – a day after the start of the Lunar New Year celebrations – two small mushroom farming communities in Half Moon Bay were changed forever when 66-year-old Chunli Zhao opened fire on his co-workers and took the lives of seven people and critically injured another.

“I was in complete shock. It was terrible,” said Mr. A, a farmworker who requested an alias to protect his identity. “At that moment, there was suddenly so much uncertainty for all of us. Will we be safe? Can we still go home? What happens next for us?”

Farmworkers like Mr. A were recruited to the California Terra Gardens and Concord Farms with the promise of free housing and work. Despite making minimum wage and living in isolated, poor living and working conditions, these Chinese and Latino workers saw the opportunity as a way to support their families. In the aftermath of the shooting, the lives of these twenty-seven farming families, 19 of whom were directly affected, were upended.

A candlelight vigil organized for the victims of the shootings at Monterey Park, Half Moon Bay, and East Oakland. (Photo by Samantha Laurey/AFP via Getty Images)

The County deployed Victim Services to provide support; however, responders were hampered due to the lack of bilingual County staff who could communicate with the farm workers, who primarily spoke Mandarin or Spanish. The County reached out to Self-Help for the Elderly for support, and the Asian Pacific Fund (APF) also stepped in and connected the County with other Chinese-serving nonprofits to provide further assistance with language interpretation, translation, and in-language counseling.

“At the time, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community was already grieving the losses from the mass shooting in Monterey Park, which took place just two days before. When this shooting happened in the Bay Area, we knew we had to act,” explained Carolyn Wang Kong, APF President and Executive Director. “It was clear there would be challenges because the nonprofit infrastructure in Half Moon Bay is limited, particularly for the Asian community. And we knew our affiliates would want to provide support from out of the area.”

APF quickly established the Half Moon Bay Support Fund and leveraged social media and its network of contacts to spread the word about the fundraising effort. Within a month, APF raised $90,000 to support the affected community. APF also partnered with the Latino Community Foundation (LCF) to issue a joint statement encouraging increased philanthropic contributions to meet the shared needs of our Latino and Asian farm workers. The AAPI and Latino community strongly responded and allowed the partnership to provide grants to six organizations in support of the Half Moon Bay farm workers. (Click here to read more about the work assisted by the Support Fund)

CYCSF, a longtime APF nonprofit affiliate, was among the first to respond to the shooting. CYCSF’s Coalition for Community Safety and Justice partners organized a meeting shortly after the shooting to discuss the incident and how to best assist with the response operations. Two days after the shooting, CYCSF staff drove the 45-minute drive from their San Francisco-based office to Half Moon Bay.

“We got the call a couple of days later asking for our bilingual staff, particularly our Case Managers and Victim Advocates, to visit the safe house where most affected families were at the time,” said Sarah Wan, CYCSF Executive Director. “We worked with the San Mateo County social workers and helped provide assessments, counseling, and other mental health services.”

For three weeks, CYCSF staff augmented the County’s operations and played a key role in providing culturally appropriate support. CYCSF bilingual staff frequented the safehouse where the families were staying to listen to their stories, provide mental health support, and also convey the survivors’ needs and concerns to the County.

In the following weeks, CYCSF began transitioning their early support to another APF nonprofit affiliate, Self-Help for the Elderly, which continued to provide intensive case management and mental health support work for the farmers while assisting the families with their housing transitions.

“Through the funding we received from APF, we were able to contract movers and moving vans to help the families settle into their temporary housing arrangement, then later helped them to transfer into their 1-year housing arrangements set up by the County of San Mateo,” said Anni Chung, Executive Director of Self-Help for the Elderly.

Self-Help also supported Ayudando Latinos A Soñar (ALAS), which was hosting informational workshops, including topics such as workers’ rights, for the affected families by translating their workshop materials to Mandarin, ensuring that information was accessible to Chinese families as well. Given that many impacted workers could not return to work at the farm, Self-Help provided career assistance to several farmers, with some finding job opportunities in neighboring areas and Mr. A receiving training that will allow him to pursue other lines of work in the future.

Following their initial contract, the County extended its agreement with Self-Help to continue supporting the Half Moon Bay farmers for another six months. In addition to providing day-to-day assistance, staff will focus on supporting mental well-being, as many families still struggle in the aftermath of the shooting. Many farmers still feel isolated since their families and friends are outside the country. Though the events of that day are behind them, the trauma persists, with many reports of continued nightmares and staff still receiving calls at all times.

The lack of bilingual mental health professionals has meant that APF affiliates, including Self-Help and CYCSF, play an outsized role as our communities’ primary mental health support system. Though our affiliates play a critical role as a safety net, much more is needed to improve the accessibility and affordability of mental health services for those who are most underserved and marginalized in our communities, like the farmers of Half Moon Bay.

“I am truly grateful for the help we’ve received since the shooting. It’s been a long struggle, but the support we were provided to help us understand, to help us move our belongings, and to have someone that we can lean on and look to has been really important to us,” said Mr. A. “These last few months have been very difficult, but I am still hopeful for the future thanks to the help we’ve received.”