Bankruptcy hovers above Orange County like a cloud of complicated math: dense and important, but probably harmless and safely ignored.
For most people, that is.
For some, it looms dark and close.
Consider the case of John Murphy, Santa Ana resident. Murphy happily regales any passerby with tales of derring-do, from his Medals of Honor to his recent tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate. He does not know that Orange County is broke.
"I returned a kidnaped U.S. Army general, Gen. Jones," Murphy says, blue eyes blazing. "Kidnaped by the CIA, the FBI, possibly the KGB. Ever heard of the Quakers? They were running Ace Hardware stores and intentionally bankrupting them. Ever heard of the Amish?"
Murphy lives on the streets, a seemingly cheerful man broken by dashed dreams. Only a year ago, Murphy would have been a prime candidate for a special county program that targeted the homeless mentally ill. County workers persuaded the mentally ill--who make up perhaps a third of Orange County's homeless--to come in off the streets and accept treatment.
The project served 2,000 of the county's homeless last year and "worked fantastically well," said Doug Barton, who directed the program.
When the bankruptcy roared in, supervisors axed the whole program. It used to cost about $600,000. Now that spending has been cut to zero and county health workers are no longer guiding them into treatment, the homeless mentally ill are often left to fend for themselves.
"We are seeing more mentally ill people in here, no doubt about it," said Connie J. Jones, executive director of the Annie Mae Tripp Southwest Community Center, which provides meals for homeless people in Santa Ana. "And there's no one to call."
Murphy and the mentally ill are not the only ones cast adrift by county budget cuts. For a whole class of Orange County residents, the financial disaster weighs heavily on lives already too hard. The bankruptcy caused a fiscal crisis, and the crisis prompted elected officials to jettison large chunks of what they did to help the sick, the abused and the misguided.
The result, according to people who receive and deliver public assistance, has been a noticeable increase in pathology and pain. The machinery set up to carry the unfortunate still runs, they say, but it is a battered, clattering affair, lurching toward its destination with great strain and far fewer passengers.
Orange County taxpayers still fork out millions of dollars annually to help the downtrodden and the abused. In many cases, health and social workers are providing roughly the same services with less money than they had the year before. Large and important parts of the social safety net remain intact.
But the cutbacks made since Orange County found itself insolvent 12 months ago have made life a little harder for many, and much more difficult for an unlucky few. Entire programs have disappeared. Some that remain are so tattered, and the people who administer them so demoralized, that they exist in little more than name only.
Across the county, the spending cuts prompted by the bankruptcy unleashed profound changes that, while sometimes difficult to measure, are too numerous to ignore.
A few tales from the front lines:
* Carol Greenwald, a senior social worker, is accustomed to big caseloads and gritty conditions: She counsels families that include young victims of physical and sexual abuse. What she is not accustomed to is talking to families in a language they do not understand. Greenwald speaks only English. Many of her clients speak only Spanish.
The county employs a handful of translators, not enough. Since the bankruptcy and the budget cuts, there are even fewer.
Greenwald often finds herself looking across a table at the parents of a child who has suffered the worst sort of abuse, unable to get through. Or even to understand. Sometimes she asks the children to translate, but that isn't always appropriate, since the topic is sometimes sexual abuse.
"It's difficult," Greenwald said.
Greenwald is not alone. At least 14 of her colleagues who speak only English are counseling families who speak mainly or exclusively Spanish.
* Before he got sick, Fredric Bishop was a professional photographer, shooting models and celebrities in a glamorous world. Then schizophrenia engulfed his mind, and he had to give it up. Bishop retreated to a rent-subsidized apartment in San Clemente, where for 10 years he has struggled to cope with his disease--and dreamed of a comeback.
"I would love to go back to work," Bishop said. "It's hard to do on your own. You forget stuff. It's real hard to focus." Earlier this year, with the help of a county program, Bishop moved closer than ever to getting back. County workers were helping Bishop find a job in his field--making calls, coaxing Bishop, prepping him, readying him for the interviews.
Then came the bankruptcy cuts. The vocational program for the mentally ill, which had cost $400,000 a year, was among the first to go. It served about 140 people a year.