EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part series on poverty in Orange County, particularly in the areas covered by our network of Patch websites. To read Part 2, .
Between losing his home and attempting to support a sick foster child and two daughters in college, Leon Williams is hanging on by his fingernails.
“It’s just about driven me over the edge,” he said earlier this spring. “We just turned the keys into our house last Saturday. We lost our home.”
Williams went from employing 10 people at a $1-million-per-year cabinetry business to having his home seized and struggling to keep his business afloat. Since 2010, he’s had to cut three jobs, cut pay twice—and even fire his own wife.
That's because his higher-end clients, people happy to spend $30,000 on a remodeled kitchen, have all but disappeared, he said.
“It’s a failure you have to deal with as a man of the house, as a provider,” Williams said. “I’ve got kids in college. I don’t know how I’m going to help anyone. I had a daughter who got married last July. She asked me what can I afford to help pay, and it’s hard to say ‘very little.’ Between the anxiety of wanting to do more and not being able to, that takes its toll on you.”
We all know the cliche. Orange County is all gated suburbs and tilt-up McMansions. Its opulence has spawned a national sub-genre of reality television, starring meticulously surgerized middle-aged women and spoiled, vapid teens.
It’s “The O.C.” -- new money and trophy wives and upward mobility.
It doesn't include the poor. Yet they are also part of our landscape, and their numbers are growing at an alarming rate. The last five years have seen a 51 percent increase in CALWorks welfare rolls and a 126 percent increase in the number of CALFresh food stamp recipients countywide. According to one Orange County Social Services official, 185,000 people—an “astounding” 5.27 percent of the population of Orange County—are on food stamps.
Poverty Hits the Suburbs
Where is all this poverty? Contrary to some perceptions, it’s not limited to the urban centers of north Orange County. In fact, close to half of the county’s food stamp recipients live south of Irvine, in the less densely populated reaches of South Orange County, said Teri Lynn Fisher of Orange County Social Services. Although South O.C. is considered the richest part of the county, boasting such wealthy communities as Laguna Niguel, with an average median household income of $97,018, it has not been immune to the economic woes that have plagued the nation since the 2006-07 fiscal year.
Sometimes, those stricken by poverty were the formerly rich.
"[People who] would never dream of receiving government assistance… are applying for food stamps; people previously with six-figure incomes,” Fisher said.
In South County, home to the wealthy Real Housewives of Orange County, the food pantries have been doling out millions of pounds of food, struggling to meet a demand that has risen dramatically since 2008.
South County Outreach, a Lake Forest-based nonprofit that provides services to the poor and homeless, saw a 53 percent jump in the number of people served at its food pantry between 2008 and 2009.
According to Dave Davis, outgoing head of the Mercy House food warehouse in Laguna Niguel, the warehouse is moving more food than ever, despite the improving employment picture nationally. Davis said the need for food is “well above” the need in 2010. “It's greater. I don't care what the unemployment rates are telling us. The demand here? Massive.”
Perils for the Elderly
Some elderly residents, having fallen prey to real estate scams, foreclosures, tax liens, shrinking retirement accounts or dementia, end up homeless. They barely survive the grind of sleeping on mats in the county’s armories.
Others are lucky enough to keep their homes but may end up choosing medicine over food, which can make them disoriented and prone to injury. Paramedics take them to the emergency room. “That’s $3,000 as soon as you walk in the door,” said Marilyn Ditty of Agewell Senior Services.
In such cases, they often can’t tell doctors what kind of medicine they’re on or who their primary-care physician is.
“This happens constantly,” Ditty said in December. “This happened three times last week.”
When the Underground Economy Falters
The underground economy, formerly thriving in industries such as construction, is suffering. Day laborers who used to have full-time construction jobs gather daily at dozens of spots throughout Orange County, such as Lake Forest’s Home Depot on El Toro Road and the Rite Aid pharmacy on Camino Real in San Clemente.
“I work sometimes three days, sometimes four, sometimes one day,” said one laborer who gave his name only as Rafael. “I have a couple of patrones, I call them up and ask, ‘You have a couple of days’ work?’ There’s nothing, [so] I go to my house and watch TV.”
Rafael said even the homeowners who aren’t struggling to pay their mortgages don’t want to sink extra money into their homes with remodeling because the properties are already underwater.
Check Patch tomorrow for the next installment in our snapshot of poverty in Orange County.