Michelle Ellis works and lives in Mission Viejo.
But home for Ellis, 23, and her 10-month-old son, Ryan, is not one of the expensive houses that have mushroomed in this sprawling, affluent South County community. It's her tan 1983 Toyota Camry parked on the street in front of the home where she works as a housekeeper during the day.
Ellis is among a growing number of low-income single mothers who can no longer afford the high cost of housing and child care in South County. Like Ellis, many single mothers are homeless, while others are "just a man away" from living on the streets, officials of several local social agencies say.
The phenomenon is part of a national trend that has recently caught the attention of several Orange County agencies.
A report released last month by the National Displaced Homemakers Network in Washington indicates that 47.6% of single mothers--those who have never married or, if previously married, now work full time to support their children--live with incomes at or near poverty levels. The report, based on census data, also notes that the number of single mothers grew from 3.2 million in 1980 to 5.8 million in 1989.
Detailed statistics for Orange County are not available, but Larry Leaman, director of the Orange County Social Services Agency, said that at least 17,000 single mothers in the county live on welfare.
The number has increased by 10% each year since 1988, he said. "Each mother accounts for two kids, so we're looking at a lot of people getting by on a minimal subsistence," Leaman said.
The increase is straining the resources of social service agencies, many of which rely on private donations and volunteer workers to meet the needs of their clients.
Ellen Gilchrist, program manager of the Episcopal Service Alliance/South County, said that at least 30% of the 2,000 people who seek help from her agency each month are single mothers.
They also account for 25% of the homeless people who live in the agency's Anchor House shelter in San Clemente, Gilchrist said.
"It's a crisis, and the sad part is few people know about the problem," said Lynn Joseph, a San Juan Capistrano businesswoman who recently helped form an organization called Single Mothers in Partnership.
"The problem just slipped through the cracks," Joseph continued. "We're going to have a young generation out there who will remember their childhood growing up on the streets."
For the most part, the creation of Single Mothers was serendipitous. Joseph, a partner in an executive search firm, said she felt the need to contribute "something back to the community."
Four months ago, she told Dr. Thomas Habib, a clinical psychologist, that she would be interested in volunteering some of her time.
Habib, director of psychological services at South County Community Clinic, seized the opportunity to help form a new agency.
"In my practice, I see many cases where marriages end up in divorce and the mother faces hardship," Habib said. "At times I have three or four single moms on my caseload at once. . . . But for ethical reasons, I couldn't bring them together. I would say to myself, 'Boy, I wish there was an organization to put them together.' "
For the last three months, Joseph has been busy contacting social agencies and circulating flyers advertising a July 27 mixer that will be held in the gymnasium of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The event will include brief workshops on sharing housing and caring for children, but the main purpose is to put single mothers in contact with others in similar situations. Interested people can call (714) 493-0050 to register.
Habib said the new organization is advocating formation of so-called three-generation families involving the child, the parent and a senior. "We are desperately seeking elderly people who are looking to share life's experiences with single mothers," the psychologist said. "Elderly people are so important to us. People don't become obsolete; they just need to feel needed."
The idea of shared housing is not new to Orange County. Seventeen independent shared-housing programs in the county comprise the Shared Housing Coordination Project, a venture funded by the Orange County Housing Authority. But none is specifically geared toward single mothers.
"Single mothers are the hardest to place" in shared housing, said Roberto Melendez, the project's coordinator. "That's why (such an organization) is extremely needed in the community. We are called repeatedly by single parents who wish to cut housing costs by rooming with a senior. . . . But many (seniors) do not want to act as baby-sitters to children."
Melendez and Leaman said Single Mothers would fill a gap in Orange County. "Shared housing is a matter of economic reality," Leaman said. "We are intrigued by the attempt to do something about the problem (in South County)."