Melissa Orduna-Jimenez, her daughter Ashley and son Vincent at an Anaheim motel discuss their family journey from homelessness and the successes of the past year as participants in an Illumination Foundation program. (Photo by: Nick Gerda)

Friday, April 1, 2011 | Melissa Orduna-Jimenez grew up in an Orange County household conditioned to violence.

By the time she was a teenager, Orduna-Jimenez was an abuser who bought her drugs at an Anaheim motel. She eventually landed in the Los Angeles County Jail on charges that she beat her husband.

“Violence was one of the ways I handled problems,” she said. “The only way I knew how to communicate was through violence or screaming and yelling.”

Today she is back at that same Anaheim motel. But it no longer is a place for her to buy her drugs – it has been cleaned up and now is home for Orduna-Jimenez and her two teenage children.

And she is being held up as a success story of a nonprofit program that takes families from the streets, helps them financially, medically and many other ways while they live in motels with the intent of breaking the cycle of homelessness.

Use of motels to house homeless children is a hugely controversial issue. Critics say the good intentions of the county and nonprofits that run such programs too often are offset by reality.

Government payments the families receive to support their children, critics contend, too often are traded for drugs and the vouchers that are intended to protect kids from harm, instead subsidize a private place for their parents to drink or do drugs.

The domestic violence that often goes hand-in-hand with homelessness and drug and alcohol abuse can occur in motel rooms behind closed doors with no one to intervene on behalf of the kids.

While there are many families in motels simply because of unemployment or because parents are working but don’t earn enough to afford an apartment. But too many others “smoke their check” and trade welfare payments for drugs, Dwight Smith, who runs the Catholic Workers’ Isaiah House in Santa Ana.

“Putting dysfunctional families in a motel room is a bad idea,” he argues, “especially when you don’t know who they are.”

The children of such families, he said, are merely “luggage” carted around by parents who won’t give them up because that would mean losing the government support payments the parents trade for drugs and alcohol.

Defenders of motel programs argue that they aren’t ideal, but they’re far better than having children mixed in with adults at the military armories used as county shelters during the winter. The armory “redirection” families are in motels temporarily until better housing can be found, they say, and it is at least an attempt to deal with a very difficult problem.

According to 2009 figures, the most recent available, about 38 percent of the homeless in Orange County are families, slightly above the national average. And the problem has only gotten worse in the years of The Great Recession.

The county has only two sources of true emergency shelter, the winter armory program with motel rooms for families and the Salvation Army. The armory shelters closed for the season last week and the Salvation Army, which is open year-round, only has space for, at most, three families. It also can shelter 34 men and 15 single women.

Non-emergency shelters will take some families but with a wide range of restrictions, including prohibitions on substance abuse, those with criminal records or other conditions that preclude children with hard-core homeless parents from participating.

But this winter, the three-year-old nonprofit Illumination Foundation, which receives financial support from the county, began taking in some homeless families as part of a new motel-based program to break the cycle of homelessness for children and their parents by targeting all of the issues, medical and personal.

The foundation lowered the criteria so that families that might be rejected by other programs are included. Some kinds of criminal history are permitted as well as teenage boys and fathers, who often aren’t permitted in non-emergency family shelters.

Smith, who took in similar families for six years at Isaiah House, knows the potential problems, including the physical violence that can involve men or teens. But he and other critics of allowing children to stay in motels are giving the Illumination Foundation’s approach a better chance for success.

The Hard Truths

When learning about the homeless family problem, a common question people ask is: why not just take the children away from their parents and put them in foster care?

It’s not that simple.

State laws, according to county Social Services Agency spokesperson Terry Lynn Fisher, allow children to be removed from their families if they are in “imminent” danger. If the threat to children’s health isn’t immediate, social workers must inspect the family within 10 days.

But many hardcore homeless families are long-gone by the time social workers can get to their last known shelter or motel room.

Homelessness alone isn’t a reason to separate children from their parents. And Fisher notes there are families with homes where the parents abuse drugs or alcohol and don’t provide basic necessities for their children.

However, homeless advocates point out that, in those cases, there is a home for the social workers to visit and determine how bad the drug or other conditions might be.

The Illumination Foundation approach, says founder Paul Leon, tackles all of the family problems that led to homelessness and concentrates as much on the children as on the parents.

Parents must make sure their kids are in school, extra curricular sports and other activities are encouraged and there are tutoring programs, including one run by volunteer UCI medical students, to help them catch up in school, a common problem for homeless children.

Adults are helped to find a job, but even without one, they must contribute a percent of whatever government subsistence checks they receive toward their housing.

In fact, learning how to handle money is a key part of the program. Signs in meeting rooms remind parents to “pay your rent first” even if it means doing without a cell phone until they can afford it.

Life skills, anger management and other classes, as well as drug and alcohol abuse programs keep the parents busy.

Dr. Eric Handler, Orange County’s health officer, said the Illumination Foundation program is “a multi-pronged approach to a very complex problem.”

Breaking the Cycle

The irony of having bought drugs at the same motel where she now lives isn’t lost on Melissa Orduna-Jimenez.

But mixed with that irony is hope.

“I would really like to get my own place,” she muses. And most of all, “I don’t want my children to follow that path.”

The Anaheim motel that’s home to Orduna-Jimenez, her 18-year-old daughter Ashley and 15-year-old son Vincent, has been cleaned up. On April 15 Orduna-Jimenez and her children will celebrate a year in residence as a success story of the Illumination Foundation.

Ashley has successfully completed course work for high school, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to get ready and catch the bus to La Vista Continuation High School in Fullerton. She hopes to start college in the fall, eventually becoming either an ultrasound technician or a veterinarian.

Vincent, a sophomore, is on the Buena Park High School tennis team, also loves football and is seeking college scholarships.

His mother drives him to school each morning and then goes to her job with a tile company. A year ago, she was abusing alcohol and the three of them were living on the dining room floor of a relative’s home.

Looking at her daughter, who will “walk” with her graduating class in June, Orduna-Jimenez said, “I told her, ‘you can either graduate and do better than your Mom, or you can end up like your Mom.’”

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