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O.C. Opulence Can Mask Poverty

Behind the glistening image of south Orange County presented by reality television, the still-sputtering economy has hit some residents hard.

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.

Joker Joe May 29, 2012 at 03:02 PM
Poor Leon. Making a million dollars a year. Wish I would of made that much. Should of put some of that money away for the kid's college or paid down his mortgage. Leon has to move his butt and get ANY kind of job. That's what a man does.
Adam Townsend May 29, 2012 at 03:14 PM
To clarify, Williams' business was grossing $1 million per year, so he was paying his overhead and employees out of that money. He is still operating his business, but contracts are slow in coming.
Ann Sue May 29, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Bo Bo ., what kind of work do you do? Easy to judge until you walk in someone's shoes. Maybe you can make a donation?
Joker Joe May 29, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Ann Sue I raised my son with no donations. Two years in the Army.(Nam). Went to a trade school. 34 yrs. working for someone. Thrifty enough to pay my house off wayyyy before I retired. Don't give me that easy to judge. crap! You sound like a martyr for the homeless and destitute!! Let the man get a job instead of you pitying him.
Charles May 29, 2012 at 04:31 PM
The guy living in the $800K home in South OC has a lower net worth than the guy pushing the shopping cart down Santa Ana Boulevard as the former is hundreds of thousands of dollars underwater while the shopping cart guy's net worth is zero.
Joker Joe May 29, 2012 at 04:49 PM
I could only dream of a $800.000 house. The underwater house will eventually go up. The ONLY reason you want a house to appreciate in value should be if you want to sell it. If you want to stay there forever you want it to go down. Why? Because when it depreciates in value you go to the tax assessor and submit a form indicating the depreciation and they lower your taxes. That is what I have done and saved many hundreds of dollars.
george gregory May 29, 2012 at 04:58 PM
so underground Raphael can afford cable a roof and power but not the time to educate himself or possibly become legal and pay his taxes like everyone else that's why Williams the cabinet man is out of work because he and his costumers paid their taxes and are now denied current and existing low interest loans to save their homes and invest into their communities commerce and reinvest back into their businesses this is the problem with Obama ecomics only union and civil employees can get loans because of stated income rules. these rules are ruining self employed people who reinvest back into their companies and participate into the true economies of commerce and community not china shame on our president and his nationalization of our banks, where's my stimulus package where's my bail out don't we self employed tax payers count will day labor become a career choice full time employment for a day labor ,,who heirs these guys ,,, hire licensed contractors look for the ladder on their trucks Calloused hands and lots of tools ,, not the pretty truck Angie list , unlicensed guy with non taxpaying day labors in his truck a public service announcement you can hire a patriot see web site ,, some marines will take day jobs and this may help them pay for sunglasses to see the bad guys or a breast plate or just a cell phone to stay in touch for your plumbing , electrical , structural needs hire George @ 949 492 1464 CSLB 531930
Yeparoo May 29, 2012 at 05:00 PM
Geez. I wonder if Mr Williams, and people similarly situated, can't wait to increase his taxes to pay for the increased cost of Cadillac Public Employee Pensions.
Peter Schelden (Editor) May 29, 2012 at 05:15 PM
Anyone interested in finding out more about Leon Williams can visit his business's website here: http://www.interiorandexteriordesignsinc.com/ He also helps with a charity called the "Mobile Closet," which is basically a trailer with a closet driven to homeless encampments. The people who need it can go inside and take what they need.
george gregory May 29, 2012 at 05:33 PM
no Cadillac pensions will be paid thru the persecution of certain classes of the public like ticketing trades men because they have ladders or materials on their trucks or crazy permit fees or crazy medical bills from leaky nuke plants or crazy park fees and license fees like fishing , cars , or trades licenses and the soon to be added shoe and bicycle taxes increased water bills and more food taxes not just junk food but on all carbohydrates' and clean air fees ,, dirty air at a lesser rate and super sized tax increases
PK May 29, 2012 at 06:07 PM
It's hard to believe that a person with such a thriving business is losing it all. It's not a good story. But I do wonder sometimes about people living beyond their means, and not saving and planning for a future emergency. I also wonder what type of impact illegal immigrants have on the food banks here. It seems like they have every free healthcare, clothing, and food hand-out dialed in.
Yeparoo May 29, 2012 at 06:09 PM
GG - But the public pensioners need to go to Costco, 7 days a week and twice on Sunday. Who will pay those tabs if not for Cadillac Public Pension benefits?
Joker Joe May 29, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Mr. Williams has to worry about his own family and forget those that Obama has let slip through the cracks. His web site is spectacular.
Joker Joe May 29, 2012 at 07:47 PM
It is obvious that illegals are ruining the country. We cannot afford them. Until Eric Holder and Bo hold their feet to the fire we will be paying extra for them in schools, healthcare, crime and housing. Those monies could be going farther, to our own children's education. Worker e -identify is only a partial solution because even with out work the benefits the U.S. gives far out weigh Mexico's benefits.
OC Mom May 29, 2012 at 08:26 PM
PK during the housing boom a lot of contractors were making a lot of money. Some of them didn't seem to realize that this was all a fluke and this kind of irrational exuberance in the economy probably wouldn't be repeated. They should have saved half of their earnings and lived way below their means. We all need to save for those future rainy days. That being said, I do feel sorry for some of these people who believed the lies of realtors and mortgage people. Men and women who took on debt and bit off more than they could chew in order to impress others.
Yeparoo May 29, 2012 at 08:42 PM
Look at this map. The newer communities with younger families (in general) of South OC bought into the real estate myth that values will always go up. Pretty much all of the CUSD and SVUSD towns show that not only are many homes "underwater," but almost the entire area has 10% (or 20%) of the homes that are worth only 1/2 of their mortgage balance. Simply amazing. http://lansner.ocregister.com/2012/05/25/1-in-4-oc-mortgages-under-water-map/163055/
Megan May 29, 2012 at 08:48 PM
It said this will be a three part article. I would like to see something on all of the homeless showing up begging for money in the Ralph's shopping center at Pacific Park and Aliso Creek, Alicia and Pacific Park, all over the Vons Shopping Center near Blockbuster and as mentined, CostCo. What is the cities take on this? Where are these people coming from? How much money are people giving out? I would think it must be quite a bit if more and more people are coming to beg. I went to Blockbuster at 11 am on a weekday/schoolday and saw 5 different people begging for money. It isn't just a weeend side business for some people anymore.
george gregory May 29, 2012 at 09:51 PM
the fact is I spend my life asking for permission just to work and pay taxes . most of the time from someone who can't Carry my ladder or a pale of water glad the redevelopment and its socialist party that went with it is dead .let the snobs pay their own way,,and let free enterprise rein . let government pay for health and safety instead of tiled sidewalks and fancy buildings for undeserving speculators' and snobs that think we should pay for their success and equity I'd like to point out also that most communities have volunteer fire departments with no pension some have home schooling with no pension many don't have building departments the only way my pension social security will pay me is by deflating the dollar to a point where its value is worthless so its numbers can be numerous enough to pay what was promised
Adam Townsend May 29, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Yeparoo, that Lansner article is pretty amazing. I used to work with him at the Register; he's done great work there as the resident real estate guru. Thanks for the link!
Yeparoo May 30, 2012 at 12:12 AM
It is a startling graphic. By the way, based on the reader interest in these two articles: "Dozens of Crated Dogs Abandoned at Park," and "Luring Immigrants into Slavery, Sex," I would think the only way you will be successful in capturing the public's interest is if you write about the trails and tribulations of the pets of homeowners who have lost everything. The dogs (135 comments) are definitely receiving more sympathy than humans (4 comments). And I have a misstatement in my post. No edit feature with the comments, so lets see if anyone reads, comprehends and corrects.
george gregory May 30, 2012 at 02:16 AM
LOL DOG BECOMES HOMELESS KICKED OUT BY PETS MASTER THAT MOVED INTO DOG HOUSE MASTERS KICKED OUT BY BANK UP DATE ADDITION TO DOG HOUSE DINIED
Panglonymous May 30, 2012 at 02:39 AM
OMG, the waters are choppy, the swell is up! The OC is part of... THE OCEAN!! Editors: How long has this been a story here, would you say?
Joker Joe May 30, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Yep The animals need help to survive. Humans are suppose to make decisions and take care of themselves. They are suppose to have a brain and use it. trails
Joker Joe May 30, 2012 at 03:16 PM
george You have that right. Huntington Beach wants to have a developer build 274 housing units on one of the busiest intersections in the city. Beach and Ellis. The city complains there is a water shortage. Can not afford to put up 3 extra volleyball nets. Yet this fiasco will pass. Just watch the city council fools vote in unison nomatter how many people do not want it.
Regina Alcantara June 11, 2012 at 06:02 AM
Even with all that Leon Williams is struggling with he and his wife still continue to do alot of charity work with their mobile closet..... please check out their website..I did and am just amazed with all they do. I plan to get try and get involved. www.TheMobileCloset.org
kizze von spaet July 13, 2012 at 10:38 PM
It is "would have" and "should have." Bo Bo, perhaps you should have attended English class instead of the snarky criticize-everyone-else club in high school.
Joker Joe July 16, 2012 at 03:05 PM
1. 40% of all workers in Los Angeles County (Los Angeles County has 10.2 million people) are working for cash and not paying taxes. This is because they are predominantly illegal aliens working without a green card. 2. 95% of warrants for murder in Los Angeles are for illegal aliens. 3. 75% of people on the most-wanted list in Los Angeles are illegal aliens. 4. Over 2/3 of all births in Los Angeles County are to illegal alien Mexicans on Medi-Cal, whose births were paid for by taxpayers. 5. Nearly 35% of all inmates in California detention centers are Mexican nationals here illegally. 6. Over 300,000 illegal aliens in Los Angeles County are living in garages. 7. The FBI reports half of all gang members in Los Angeles are most likely illegal aliens from south of the border. 8. Nearly 60% of all occupants of HUD properties are illegal. 9. 21 radio stations in Los Angeles are Spanish speaking. 10. In Los Angeles County 5.1 million people speak English, 3.9 million speak Spanish. (There are 10.2 million people in Los Angeles County .) (All 10 of the above statements are from the Los Angeles Times) Less than 2% of illegal aliens are picking our crops, but 29% are on welfare. Over 70% of the United States' annual population growth (and over 90% of California, Florida, and New York ) results from immigration. 29% of inmates in federal prisons are illegal aliens. We are a bunch of fools for letting this continue!
Joker Joe July 16, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Let's concentrate on gay marriages first! Then on 6 months of campaigning to be president again. Then on ending some wars in a couple of years. Then, maybe our own homeless and destitute.
Joker Joe July 16, 2012 at 03:15 PM
kizze Say what?? Open your eyes. Get a job instead of relying on your husband.
Joker Joe July 16, 2012 at 03:20 PM
If you think things are bad now, VOTE FOR OBAMA for four more years.... lol lol

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