Meet Vi Huynh, Safety Advocate And Founder Of Sunset Neighborhood Watch

Tomorrow night, local residents will gather at the Sunset Recreation Center for the year's first meeting of the Sunset Neighborhood Watch

The organization was founded in fall 2014 by Vi Huynh. A Vietnamese refugee of Chinese descent, Huynh came to the U.S. when he was just seven years old. He has been a San Franciscan for about 20 years, a Sunset resident for 15, and a homeowner for 11. He started getting involved in neighborhood affairs in 2013, after he noticed a fence that appeared to be ready to collapse during construction at the Rec Center.

"Children play right there," said Huynh. "Somebody had to do something about that dangerous fence." After he contacted District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang's office, Tang and an aide visited the construction site with him. From there, Tang's office made some calls, and the fence was fixed in a few days. "I guess when you have always lived in the Sunset, you care about the problems your constituents tell you," Huynh said.

Sunset Recreation Center. (Photo: via SF Rec & Park)

The next year, Huynh was once again inspired to get involved after a wave of vehicle break-ins swept the Central Sunset on Memorial Day weekend, with around 70 cars burgled. He reached out again to Tang's office, and was directed to San Francisco SAFE, a nonprofit crime-prevention program created by the SFPD that helps residents set up neighborhood watch groups.

With SAFE's help, Huynh, Gladys Kupper, and a handful of other residents started the Sunset Neighborhood Watch. In its inaugural year, the Neighborhood Watch has attracted a substantial membership of nearly 100 people, and expanded to cover almost 150 blocks, bounded by Lincoln Way, Quintara, 19th Avenue and Sunset Boulevard.

According to Huynh, a criminal needs three things to commit a crime: skill, desire, and opportunity. The Neighborhood Watch is designed to combat that last part, by ensuring neighbors get to know each other. "When neighbors know each other, that takes away the opportunity, because they are looking out for each other," he said.

Huynh had to look out for his family from a young age. When he was only six years old, his family fled Vietnam on a year-long odyssey marred by death and violence; at one point, their ship was robbed at sea; later, the refugees ran out of food and water. Along the way, Huynh and his family made stops in Malaysia and on a desolate Indonesian island, where he said other refugees died on a daily basis.

The family eventually made it to the U.S., moving in with relatives in the East Bay. But shortly after their arrival, Huynh's mother contracted uterine cancer. She died when Huynh was 13, leaving his father to raise him, his three older sisters, and his younger brother. Huynh and his brother would work at the Alameda Flea Market on Saturday mornings for spending money, as their father wanted them to be self-sufficient. "I've always worked," said Huynh.

Since then, he's had a varied career, working in HIV prevention and intervention, teaching in the SFUSD, doing administrative work for the SFSU Campus Police, working with blind and visually impaired youth, and recruiting for Bank of America. "Life is too short to do just one thing," he said.

Outside of work, Huynh is a member of the Community Police Advisory Board and works with the Friends of the Sunset Recreation Center, which beautifies the community hub. "All of my jobs have been dealing with people face to face," he said. "I need a sense of community." 

That sense of community is starting to develop within the Sunset Neighborhood Watch as well. "People are starting to connect," he told us of the group's members. "People are starting to have lunch and dinner together. People are playing bridge together. In one year, we were able to create a sense of community."

Huynh said starting the organization has connected him with the community like never before. "Before starting the neighborhood watch, I didn't know most of my neighbors. Living in a big city like San Francisco, it's difficult to meet people in your neighborhood. Most people come home from work and pull into their driveway." 

The only downside, he said, is that managing the group takes up a lot of his time. His goal for the new year is to bring in new members and leadership to help make the organization more sustainable. 

After taking a break for the holidays, the Sunset Neighborhood Watch is meeting again tomorrow night, January 26th, at the Sunset Recreation Center (6:30-8pm). The meeting will include briefings from Madonna Valdez, a Public Safety Communications Coordinator dealing with Emergency 911; Katy Tang's office; and SFPD Taraval Station.

The group will team up with Tang, OSPRA and Mary McNamara to hold a special meeting in March, with District Attorney George Gascón, SFPD Chief Greg Suhr and Capt. Denise Flaherty of Taraval Station tentatively scheduled to attend.

In terms of safety, Huynh encourages neighbors to look in on each other and keep an eye on each other's homes. If something seems amiss, he suggests calling the police non-emergency line at (415) 553-0123. Call 911 if it's an emergency or crime in progress.

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