It’s rare when the media looks into the personal history of a homeless person, but a recent article in the Korea Times does exactly that. The story that emerges takes readers from the halcyon days of post war Seoul to Tokyo police stations and finally to the back streets of Oakland, where Hae-ok Gye now calls home.

Known locally as Kay, the 57-year-old spends most mornings in Oakland’s downtown, competing for recyclable cans with the city’s other homeless. Having arrived in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, she is one of a small number of ethnic Koreans living on the streets here.

According to Alameda County Public Health Department, as of January, the official homeless population for the county was around 5,000, but unofficial numbers put it between 12,000 and 18,000. Statistics put the number of homeless in the United States at around 3 million, with Asians barely registering on the screen in terms of numbers. Whites and African Americans make up the majority of the nation’s homeless population.

“Of all the people in the world, no one cared for me as much as my father and husband,” recalls Kay, a wide smile animating her otherwise ragged exterior.

As a child her father served for a brief period as Seoul’s police chief, with stories of playtime in backroom stations punctuating her memories of a city still scarred by the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean
War. In 1961, she says, her family moved to Tokyo’s Shibuya District, where they opened what soon became a successful café.

Over the next several years the family often moved back and forth between Seoul and Tokyo, where Kay’s grandmother lived as part a community going back to WWII. Besides English, Kay is fluent in Japanese and Korean, notes the article.

It was when Kay arrived in the U.S. that events take an abrupt turn away from the happy memories of her childhood and toward what would become a life of struggle, eventual homelessness, and art.

In 1980 she joined a polka band, later falling in love with Bay Area resident and outsider artist Fred Griffing, whose work has been featured across the bay in Sausalito.

Hauling around a bag full of abstract drawings, Kay told the paper that she's long-since lost contact with the step-mother who raised her. “I’ve only met my biological mother once,” she adds, before packing up her cart and disappearing back into the shadows.