EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a three-part series on poverty in Orange County, particularly in the areas covered by our network of Patch websites. To read Part 1, . For Part 2, .
Gil Marley of San Clemente never saw it coming. One day he was planning his retirement, following a career in aerospace and two successful businesses. His hard work had left him a wealthy man. Certainly, he thought, he would always be comfortable.
Then, seemingly the next day, he was sleeping in his car.
Bad luck contributed to Marley’s predicament. To make sure the government wouldn’t seize the vast majority of his assets when he died, Marley signed over all his holdings to his adult son. But shortly thereafter, the son died suddenly from a fast-moving form of cancer. Four years later, the family assets are still tied up in probate court, and Marley, 82, is penniless.
“I was reduced to nothing,” he said. “We went into probate court and I was without assets. I remember the day when the town water department left a note on my door saying they would shut off my water the following Monday. I was numb. I was incapable of thinking.”
After two weeks sleeping in his car, Marley now lives in a more stable situation with the help of Family Assistance Ministries, a food pantry and social services organization in San Clemente. The nonprofit helped him put down a deposit on a new apartment as he awaits the outcome of the probate proceedings.
A Variety of Setbacks
Seldom in a financial position to handle big setbacks, seniors in Orange County have been particularly hit hard by the recession.
Banks have been evicting them, and the market crash in 2008 decimated their retirement accounts.
Marilyn Ditty, director of AgeWell Senior Services, said the big spike in demand for help from her organization began in January 2011. AgeWell provides meals and transportation, adult day care, physical therapy, healthcare classes and other services for seniors. Seniors in foreclosure because of failure to pay second mortgages or property taxes have flooded the agency with calls.
Another hit during the downturn was a two-year period without cost-of-living increases to Social Security, said Norah Dopudja, director of South County Outreach in Lake Forest.
She recalled a Laguna Woods resident thrown into a precarious situation when her daughter died suddenly, leaving the retiree responsible for the grandchildren. Because of the community’s age restrictions, the woman had to move out of her home and into an apartment she could barely afford with her young grandchildren.
Rising food and gas costs can also push seniors to the brink of homelessness, Dopudja said.
Unexpected expenses—higher utility rates or a flat tire—can eat up what little budgetary leeway they have, she said. Seniors with medical issues can also see electricity costs jump also if they use medical equipment at home.
“They just don’t have the extra [money] and that’s where the food [pantry] once a week or once a month comes in,” she said. Dopudja said food from the pantry can save a family about $75 per month.
The wave of banks seizing seniors’ homes and other recession-related problems in Orange County has caught service agencies--both governmental and nonprofit--by surprise and left them scrambling to catch up with the need.
Hunger and Homelessness
An unknown number of seniors are living in cars or being shuffled in and out of uncomfortable and drafty National Guard armories, sleeping alongside the longtime homeless.
“I don’t think that we’ve been able to do everything that needs to be done,” Ditty said. “Every time it seems like we are able to solve a problem, another one surfaces that is even more complicated.”
It’s a lot easier to help younger families, Ditty said. They typically don’t have difficult medical conditions or dementia. Also, fragile seniors just can’t handle the grind of homelessness as well as younger people.
“Seniors don’t do well in these armories,” Ditty said. “They kick them out at 6 a.m. and round them up and take them back at 6 p.m. They’re sleeping on cots.”
Max Brauer, 86, lives in a Mission Viejo senior community on a fixed income of $854 a month. He said he’s very careful with his money.
“I don't buy Coca-Cola, and I don't buy things that are not necessary,” he said. “When I'm thirsty, I drink water. I buy potatoes and rice."
Brauer said he relies on his five kids for help in months like April, when property tax comes due -- an annual bill of almost $800.
"Sometimes I need a little help,” he said. “And there's not enough money, so they help me. But I need very little help."
Brauer owned a Mission Viejo deli before he retired. His house is paid for, and so is his car — a 1991 Honda that he paid cash for new. He said he only spends money on gas and to pay for medicine, doctor appointments and occasional visits to his children, who also live in Orange County.
For three months, Brauer has accepted food from the local AgeWell's Meals on Wheels program. But he said he plans to discontinue it because others need the service more than he does.
"I know there are so many people who don't own their own house,” he said. “They have to pay rent, and they have no medicine or food. I don't have this problem."
AgeWell did an informal survey last year of the people at its senior centers--such as the ones in San Clemente and Mission Viejo--and found about half had no food in their houses. They basically relied on the hot lunches served at the senior center for all their nutrition.
And that can lead to other problems.
If a senior is getting only one meal a day, Ditty said, that can mean taking medicine on an empty stomach, getting lightheaded and then falling or having an accident. Paramedics take them to the emergency room -- “That’s $3,000 as soon as you walk in the door” -- and then they can’t tell doctors what kind of medicine they’re on or who their primary-care physician is.
“I can tell you horror stories,” Ditty said. “An elderly person who has dementia, you ask them, ‘Who’s your doctor?’ They can’t tell you.”
But steps are being taken to help seniors in trouble. The Orange County Office of the Assessor has stopped foreclosing on delinquent properties occupied by seniors. They put liens on the homes instead.
AgeWell works with other county agencies and landlords around South Orange County to get foreclosed seniors into rentals, whether they’re trailers or apartments.
Some seniors are more fortunate.
Blanche Hagopian started receiving meals at home after she got out of the hospital in January.
“I had a close call,” she said. “Apparently, I had an abscessed tooth and the infection got in my bloodstream, and the next stop was my heart.”
She said living on a fixed income is hard, but planning ahead has protected her from the worst of it. For instance, Hagopian relies on long-term care insurance to pay for daily caretakers.
“It just depends on how astute you are,” she said. “People think Uncle Sam's going to care for them or they can manage on a little bit of Social Security. It doesn't work that way.”