Sokcheat Ly, who spent four years in a Cambodian labor camp, is no stranger to hard work. Now the Garden Grove mother of two young children faces a new challenge as a single mother on welfare.
But Ly, whose husband recently was forced to leave the family, is pulling her life together with help from Project Self-Sufficiency, a 2-year-old federal program aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty that traps many single mothers.
In Orange County, 175 single mothers and a handful of fathers receive a package of services under the program, including about $1.4 million in housing subsidies, low-cost child care, free education and transportation.
$48 Million in Housing Aid
The Department of Housing and Urban Development's demonstration project provides $48 million in housing subsidies to 3,800 single parents across the country. Ninety-nine percent of those served by the 155 project sites are women. About 25 openings remain in Orange County, and ultimately 4,800 parents will participate nationwide, according to HUD officials.
Project Self-Sufficiency was born after a HUD survey revealed that two-thirds of those receiving federal housing assistance were single parents. The project was designed to carry out a major goal of the Reagan Administration--reducing reliance on government assistance.
"We are really just carrying out the President's philosophy," said Kay Kinney of HUD's policy development section. "We feel like the communities have done a very good job in selecting people who will stick with it."
Until they can support their families, Ly and other Orange County parents will continue to receive welfare payments.
"I don't worry about money to pay the rent or to buy food," said Ly, a well-educated Cambodian who is fluent in both English and French. She said the project allows her to go to school full time so she can begin working sooner.
Ly gets $617 a month on welfare. She pays $210 a month toward her $614-a-month apartment rent and Project Self-Sufficiency picks up the rest. That leaves her with about $100 a week to live on.
Ly said that her husband left home because he was suffering from anxiety and stress related to his lengthy imprisonment in a Cambodian concentration camp.
Ly, who speaks to him several times a week, said he is living with friends in New York and is trying to adjust to life as a free man in America. She is hopeful he will return home.
Until then, Ly, her 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Charya, and 6-year-old son, Soktheas, share an immaculate three-bedroom apartment with a black-and-white kitten named Pluto. Ly does two hours of volunteer work each week in Orange Coast College's day-care center, permitting her children to attend free. Meanwhile, she studies full time to be a respiratory therapist.
The daughter of a Cambodian government official, Ly was about to enter medical school (she still hopes to become a doctor) when the Communists took over her homeland 11 years ago. In 1981, seven months after the birth of their son, she and her husband fled on foot to Thailand. They reached the United States after a three-year odyssey that included stops at refugee centers in Thailand and the Philippines.
Officials say Project Self-Sufficiency is reaching only a fraction of the nearly 14,000 single mothers on welfare in Orange County. (To be eligible for welfare, mothers with one child cannot have an annual income of more than $7,070. For a mother and three children, the cutoff is $11,970.)
The HUD program has attracted hundreds of applicants, but most are turned away, mainly because of the program's limited budget. The principal factor for acceptance into Project Self-Sufficiency, said Dorothy Clobes, Garden Grove's coordinator, is the applicants' motivation to get off welfare.
"We have interviewed hundreds of single parents and the main thing is to find a stable environment for their kids and themselves," Clobes said. Finding good child care so the parents can work or go to school is the next-highest priority, she added.
Sixth Month With Bank
Getting a good-paying job was a personal triumph for Melba Kirby, who is celebrating her six-month anniversary with Security Pacific Bank this month. She completed 13 weeks of training as a clerk and bookkeeper before being hired by the bank's real estate division in Cypress.
Kirby, who lives in Garden Grove with her 17-year-old son, Donald, said that a few months ago, she was wearing clothes from Goodwill. Now, she can afford a few new things, including a videocassette recorder.
"This is the first time in our life we can eat steak instead of hamburger," said Kirby, an attractive woman with short, silver hair. "I've also got myself completely out of debt."