Making the maximum of her minimum-wage lifestyle

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Orange County Register (California)
October 28, 2010

There was one thing on Carol West's mind last month as she traversed Orange County by bus, from morning to afternoon, searching for a job.

Job = home.

She had been laid off in April 2009 from her customer service job. Then, earlier this year, with no money for rent, she and her husband, Mark, were evicted from their Orange apartment. They then became the suburban middle-class nightmare - homeless.

It's the sort of traumatic experience that breaks marriages apart, and for now, that seems to be what's happening to the Wests. The couple separated this summer, and Carol was accepted into Wise Place, a transitional shelter for women. The one catch to staying at Wise Place is that residents have one month to find a job - any job.

So, Carol searched for jobs. And, as her deadline approached, she suffered, if possible, even more stress, thinking they'd be kicked out of a transitional shelter because of her working status, even as a case manager assured her that the Wise Place would make an exception because of the tight job market.

"I was starting to get stressed out," says Carol, 51. "What was on the line for me was my home."

So in early September, on the day Carol landed a job as the front-desk receptionist at Saf-T-Co Supply, a Santa Ana-based distributor of electrical and utility products, that seemingly unreachable dream of having a place to call her own suddenly became real.

"I walked out of these doors and I looked around and I thought, 'This is where I'm going to be coming to work everyday. This is my new home,'" Carol says.

But even then, as Carol celebrated this momentous step, even as her case manager and staff at Wise Place jumped for joy, even as Orange County Register readers sent in ecstatic e-mails congratulating Carol, I couldn't help but think ahead to her next steps.

In Orange County, does job = home?

Earning slightly more than the state's $8 minimum wage, how would Carol afford an apartment in a county with so little affordable housing that families often have to double or even triple up in apartments. Others - people with jobs- can only afford to stay in low-rent motels.

Oh yeah, the wait for Section 8 housing vouchers in Orange County - a voucher that the working poor can use to meet rent - can stretch five years or more.

Carol, thanks to Wise Place, is one of the lucky ones. Since landing her job, she meets regularly with a case manager and a financial empowerment counselor who help her set financial goals and research low-rent housing through the nonprofit's network of housing contacts.

But Wise Place Director of Development Terri Galvan knows what minimum-wage workers like Carol are up against. To survive in Orange County's pricey housing market and cover just basic expenses, she estimates a worker would need to earn $18 per hour.

"At minimum wage and paying housing, you're down to the bare minimum," says Terri, who formerly oversaw Wise Place's financial empowerment program.

What happens when a car breaks down or a person gets sick? The unexpected expenses can throw those surviving paycheck to paycheck off course and, in some cases, onto the streets. For the past year, Wise Place has been able to tap into federal funds from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing program, which helps address gaps like these.

"It's really geared toward keeping them in permanent housing and just realizing that there's not enough spare money to have a $500 car repair," says Galvan.

But that funding is only guaranteed for another two years. What happens after that? People are still struggling to find jobs. Carol's boss, Saf-T-Co founder and President Patty McDonald, says she received an inch-thick stack of resumes for the receptionist position that Carol filled.

"I've seen some dips in the economy back in the early '90s when the housing market fell out, but I've never seen anything like this," says McDonald, a longtime financial supporter of Wise Place.

The three-phase program that Wise Place residents follow is tough, she says, but it helps them navigate an even tougher job market so that they can become self-sufficient.

Carol, who has reached phase two of the program, says that with careful budgeting, she believes she can survive on her own in a small rental once she graduates, as expected, come February. Maybe, she adds, she'll be able to afford a cat, to replace the kitten she was forced to give up when she lost her apartment in Orange.

The road ahead may still be a struggle, but one thing is for sure. Job = a happy Carol.

At her desk at Saf-T-Co, she answers callers in a friendly, soothing voice. She hums happily to music playing in the background as she staples invoices.

"It feels really good to know that I've earned this money and this is going to go toward securing my future," she says. "... It took a long time. It was a struggle, but this is where I've gotten and if it wasn't for all the people who stepped in and helped when I reached out and asked for help, I wouldn't be here today."

Wise Place will host its annual fundraiser, "A Home for the Holidays," on Nov. 13 in Newport Beach. For information, call 714-542-3577 or e-mail

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on November 1, 2010 4:08 PM.

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