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A Mother Perseveres : After Months of Homelessness, a Family Finds the Joy of a Place to Call Its Own

December 25, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

Evelyn Mojica will be home for Christmas this year. So will her two children, 14-year-old Damian and 16-year-old Lela. Home is a modest apartment near the UC Irvine campus. A poinsettia will have to substitute for a Christmas tree. But to the Mojica family, it looks like a very large slice of heaven.

Mojica--a tiny, vibrant woman of Puerto Rican and French ancestry--doesn't like to remember last Christmas. She was bedded down with her children on the floor of a friend's apartment, full of self-doubt and anxiety.

"We had a tree last year," she said in her cubbyhole office at UCI, "but it wasn't ours. This year the poinsettia is ours--and it looks beautiful."

For almost a year, Mojica and her two children were a statistic in the growing army of American homeless. But where sociologists and politicians see statistics, Mojica sees people. "Most Americans," she said, "see the homeless as derelicts lying around the streets of big cities. That's not the way it is. Most people in that situation got there because of circumstances over which they had no control. It's a terrible blow to your pride and dignity."

Mojica had the dubious distinction of being homeless in what has been presented almost since its inception as America's model city, the be-all and end-all of urban planning: Irvine.

That notwithstanding, Irvine has its share of homeless and, in an attempt to deal with the problem, applied for and received in October a $496,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to convert a vacant animal shelter into a 50-bed facility for homeless families. That plan was scrapped earlier this month when HUD canceled the grant, citing concern over potential danger because of its proximity to the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The city has until Jan. 25, however, to find a new site for the shelter to still qualify for the grant.

Mojica says she doesn't know enough about the technicalities to comment. Nor was she aware of the recent survey in which Orange County showed up with one of the lowest ratios in the nation between income and giving.

"All I would like to say to the people who are making these decisions," Mojica said, "is that they may well be talking about their next-door neighbor--or themselves--some day. They just don't want what they see as transients around. People with this attitude say they've worked hard to get where they are, but what they don't understand is that others who have worked just as hard sometimes find themselves homeless because of circumstances that could happen to anybody."

Mojica certainly didn't expect it could happen to her. She spent her early childhood with six brothers and sisters in New York City. The family moved to Long Island in her teens, and she graduated from high school there and attended several years of college at the Stonybrook campus of New York University before her children were born. She went through an experience then that she won't talk about beyond saying that it traumatized her enough to send her to Southern California with her two children.

"Let's just say," Mojica said, "that I've been a single parent for 14 years."

She had saved enough money to finance the trip, and when she visited a friend whose husband was stationed at El Toro, she discovered UCI. Mojica had studied dance as a child and was accepted in the Fine Arts School at UCI. She found campus housing, put her children in school in Irvine, supported herself by tutoring and teaching and earned first a bachelor's and then a master of fine arts degree.

"I loved Irvine," she said simply, "and I saw it as my hometown."

But when she graduated, she had to go where she could find work--and thatturned out to be Carbondale, Ill., where she accepted a job as an assistant professor of dance at Southern Illinois University. She taught there for two years, then decided to come back to California "because I felt stifled. The area was stagnant culturally, and the arts were booming in Orange County. I wanted to be a part of that."

So she looked for a job in her field in Southern California, and the closest thing she could find to Irvine was a teaching post at Cal State Los Angeles. She took it, packed up over the summer and reported for work in August, intending to find an apartment in Irvine and put her children back in school in their "hometown." That's when things started downhill.

When she appeared to do the necessary preliminary paper work, she was told that the job already had been filled. "I had a letter, but no contract," she said. "I was helpless to do anything about it except look for other work."

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