SANTA ANA — Calling the ceremony "a celebration of good news," a team of social service workers, private contractors and city officials Tuesday kicked off what will be one of the county's few shelters that caters to single homeless women and their children.
Regina House--two renovated bungalows in the French Court neighborhood that date to the early 1900s--will offer not only shelter but referrals for job training and affordable housing, tutoring for children and counseling for up to seven women and 11 children.
"Today, we open the doors of a place where mothers don't have to disgrace themselves and little boys can laugh," said Larry Haynes, executive director of the Mercy House Transitional Living Center, which will run the shelter and already operates another one in Santa Ana for single homeless men.
The Mercy House philosophy aims to get employable people back on their feet, and encourages participants to be independent in order to prepare them for the trials they will soon face on their own, Haynes said. The women will stay at the houses on Bush Street with their children for six months, cook for themselves and pay "rent," which will be held in savings accounts for them.
Project backers who waited three years for the Regina House to come to fruition praised the collaboration between private donors, public money and nonprofit agencies, and lauded the French Court Neighborhood Assn. for welcoming the shelter.
"Unlike what is so common elsewhere in our county, when the idea came up, the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) defense shield did not go up immediately," Santa Ana Councilman Robert L. Richardson told a group of about 50 supporters gathered for the opening.
The homes, now immaculately redesigned and decorated with art prints, were rotting from age and had to be reconstructed. While everything from the windowsto the foundation are new, volunteer architects remained true to the houses' original design, said Kermit Dorius, who acted as the liaison between contractors and Irvine-based HomeAid Orange County, which was credited for helping financing the project.
About $300,000 was donated by more than 100 contractors and designers for the Regina House project. The city of Santa Ana provided $128,000 in financing from redevelopment funds, and Irvine contributed $47,000.
Presiding over the opening ceremony was Father Jerome T. Karcher of St. Joachim Church of Costa Mesa, who founded the Mercy House Transitional Living Center five years ago while living at St. Anne's parish in Santa Ana.
Homeless activists in Orange County say the Regina House should help erode stereotypes of the homeless as mentally ill or drug-addicted single men.
"Nationwide and in the county, the fastest-growing group of homeless are families and children, and in that group, single mothers are the fastest growing," said Tim Shaw, executive director of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force.
A task force study released last year said 30% of the county's estimated 12,000 homeless people are children with an average age of 8. Other surveys indicate the percentage could be as high as 50%.
Being a single mother can put women at an increased risk of homelessness, particularly since private child care in the county runs about $100 a week and government assistance for women with dependent children has been cut continuously during the recent fiscal crisis, Shaw said. While family shelters in Orange County accept single women, he said, there are few services that strive to specifically meet the needs of single mothers.
"We want the women who stay here to reroot themselves in society . . . to discover their goodness as we are good to them," Karcher said.
Jim Kendrick, who was president of the French Court Neighborhood Assn. when the project was approved three years ago, said it wasn't an easy sell.
"As a neighborhood association, we said, 'What do we really want in our neighborhood? Do we want another house filled with overcrowding?' " Kendrick said.
"The neighborhood decided we'd rather have something that had controls, and with those controls we got a really good project," he said.
Clients are now being screened for the program, and two graduate students who will staff the houses are expected to move in next week, Haynes said.
"There is an incredible need. Every day we get dozens of phone calls from people looking for shelter," said Lisa Mastropietro, administrative director of Mercy House Transitional Living Center. "People are just in desperation, calling everywhere they can think of."