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Single-Parent Families Join Households : Financial and Social Gains Make Up for the Lack of Privacy


Two months ago, Diane Pennefather was in a financial bind, with a large rent payment due and no one to help.

A divorced mother of two, Pennefather, 35, placed an ad in the newspaper looking for another single parent with children to share her La Palma home. During the first week, she received nearly 100 phone calls from single parents in the same situation.

"I originally went through the regular roommate finders' services, but they were reluctant to help me since I had children," Pennefather explained. "I was certain that other single women with children were having similar problems, so I placed my own ad.

"I never dreamed the response would be so great. I didn't realize there were so many people in the same boat."

As a result of her experience, Pennefather began her own business, Roommates for Today's Family, aimed at helping single parents find other single parents to share housing. (The agency also helps those without children.)

Although she works full time as a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Clinic in West Los Angeles, Pennefather said she wanted to offer the roommate service because her own experience taught her that the need was there. She spends many of her spare hours screening potential roommates and matching families.

"Single parents, especially single women with children, are usually working outside the home," Pennefather said. "They have rent to pay and day care expenses if they have young children. They also have food to buy and dinner to make and a house to keep clean. If there's time, they also have a social life.

"If you share a home with another single parent, it takes a tremendous financial burden off you. It's also nice to have another adult in the house to talk to and someone to help out with the kids."

"Sharing a house with another woman and her children is like being part of the 'Kate and Allie' show," said Valerie Cooper, 33, of Santa Ana. "It's the one situation I can think of where a television program really does reflect real life. I've had a roommate for eight months and it has worked out well for both of us and our kids."

For Diane Pennefather, the television program actually inspired real life. Watching "Kate and Allie," the television sitcom depicting the lives of two divorced women with children who live together, prompted her to search for another woman with children to share her home.

In 1984, 7 1/2 million households were headed by one parent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median income for single women with children in 1984 was $12,803 per year.

With the cost of living so high in Orange County, many single parents cannot afford living in a comfortable home on only one income, Pennefather said. (After her ad in the newspaper, Pennefather eventually found a roommate with one child.)

The classified ads also brought Rosalind Freeman and her two children from Palm Springs to Huntington Beach to join households with Thea Vogler's family.

After her divorce, Vogler, 43, did not want to give up her five-bedroom house in Huntington Beach or change her four children's living habits. She, too, decided to share her home with another single woman with children.

"My family was used to a two-income household, and with the divorce, I suddenly had (increased) expenses and less income," Vogler said. "I didn't want to force my children to give up some of the extras, so initially my reason for looking for a roommate was financial."

For Freeman, the benefits of home sharing were more than just financial.

"I am new to this area, and moving in with Thea provided me with an instant information source that I wouldn't normally have," Freeman, 38, said. "I quickly learned about schools, grocery stores and other services. In addition, her children were close to the same age as mine, so they had friends."

Both women say the advantages of combining households outweigh the biggest disadvantage of losing some privacy.

"When you have children, you lose a lot of privacy anyway," Vogler said. "My privacy was already invaded with my children, so another adult and a few more children wasn't going to change anything."

In addition to saving money, both women say, there is an emotional support system provided, an adult companion, collaboration on cooking and cleaning chores, and joint parental responsibilities.

"We sat down with the kids and discussed the rules," Vogler said. "Whichever mom is in the house at the time has charge over the kids. If both of us are there, we take care of our own kids. We tried anticipating some of the problems ahead of time and discussed how we wanted to handle it."

Pennefather's Roommates for Today's Family matched up Becky Steinmetz, 27, and Angela McClelland, 23, whose home is in Irvine. Each has a child under the age of 2.

A service technician for Pacific Bell, Steinmetz said that living with another adult takes some adjustment.

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