Exclusive: 78-year-old man punched and robbed while collecting cans speaks out

LOWER EAST SIDE, Manhattan (WABC) -- A 78-year-old man collecting cans on the Lower East Side was assaulted and robbed by an unknown assailant, and authorities are hoping a surveillance image of the suspect will lead to an arrest.

It happened Sunday morning around 2 a.m. in front of 180 Orchard Street, and the victim -- who didn't want his name used -- is speaking exclusively to Eyewitness News.

He said just wants to live peacefully and doesn't want to get his attacker to get in trouble because he feels badly for him.

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For more than 30 years, he has lived on the Lower East Side, and he's never been through something like this.

"This is mine, not yours," is what he said the assailant screamed at him before snatching his belongings, punching him in the face and thigh, and shoving him to the ground.

Speaking in Mandarin through a translator, he said he reported it to police four days after the incident because he's in so much pain he has trouble walking.

He is tender and frail, barely over 100 pounds, and the attacker stole the cans he collects to survive.

"He doesn't believe it's a racist thing," the translator said. "He just believes this guy is just homeless and he needs money. And he says that if you think about it now, if he knew or if he could speak English, he says, you know what if you need money, I'll give you $5 so you can have something."

Helen Nguyen isn't family, but she might as well be. The victim called her the morning of the attack.

"So he said he has three sons and one daughter, and he said one night I was sleeping, and when I was sleeping, 'I saw two daughters,'" she said. "And my translation was he was obviously dreaming. He goes, 'One lives in Brooklyn, and one is you.'"

She is the owner of Saigon Social, a restaurant down the block that was set to open in March 2020, the day the governor ordered the shutdown. So she pivoted.

At the peak of the pandemic, partnering with non profits, she provided as many as 800 meals a day for hungry seniors.

Today, her restaurant still cooks up 500 meals a week to combat food insecurity among elders.

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The 78-year-old victim comes by often, but never comes inside.

"He's always on the corner," she said. "We always save our cans for him, and what he does is he'll grab the bag, he'll go to the corner, he'll separate it. Just so that he stays out of everyone's way. Separate the cans and the garbage if he could, and he'll just return the bags to you."

Nguyen said she has offered him a job, but he refuses because he says he doesn't want to slow her down.

Police have made no arrests.

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