Maria Cervantes, her three children and tiny grandchild live in a cluttered garage in this central Orange County community. They don't have any privacy and say their most valuable possessions are the clothes on their backs. But in three weeks, the Cervantes family will move into a new three-bedroom duplex, complete with furniture and a garage.
The duplex is part of a $350,000, six-unit complex that stands as the largest newly constructed homeless housing in Orange County. Built entirely with donated materials, from concrete to carpeting, the shelter was constructed by HomeAid, a nonprofit program sponsored by the Building Industry Assn., a trade organization of developers.
"This is the most ambitious construction for the homeless in Orange County history," HomeAid chairman Bob Albertson said Monday, upon dedicating the Don R. Roth Family Shelter. "We had a choice to get involved to try to solve the homeless problem or we could have ignored it. We chose to get involved."
Housing officials estimate that Orange County has 8,000 to 10,000 homeless people, half of whom are children.
Last year, officials from the building association launched the $1-million HomeAid program with a promise to build or renovate five shelters throughout the county, one for each of the supervisorial districts. The four other projects include renovation work on the Thomas House in Garden Grove; the Interval House, a shelter for abused women in unincorporated Midway City; the Anchor House in San Clemente; and partial reconstruction of the New Vista House in Fullerton.
The five facilities, to which HomeAid has added 114 new beds, are considered transitional housing where homeless people may stay until they save enough money to get back into the permanent housing market.
Albertson announced that the program will next renovate the Huntington Youth Shelter in Huntington Beach and the Friendship Shelter in Laguna Beach.
"HomeAid can't solve the entire homeless problem in Orange County, but it can make some sort of difference," said Susan Oakson, coordinator of the county's Homeless Issues Task Force.
The unit that Cervantes and her children will occupy--once some landscaping is added and the electricity is turned on--would rent for up to $1,200 a month on the open market. But HomeAid is charging Cervantes only $200 to cover utilities and expenses.
"We've lived up and down for years," said daughter Patty Cervantes, 17, who was so awed by her new home that she was afraid to touch the furniture. "This is the closest thing we ever had to a real home."
In their first visit to their new place, the Cervantes family walked through the duplex whispering. They will stay at the Pearl Street house for two to three months or until they can afford to rent an apartment at market value.
Jose Cervantes, 15, admired the television in the living room. Maria, 14, seemed content just to stay close by her mother. Patty touched the spreads that covered the queen-size bed in the master bedroom before gently placing her 18-month-old daughter, Adriana Bastida, on it.
A month ago, their mother was desperate to find a home after the family was kicked out of their $700-a-month apartment. Cervantes, 40, who speaks little English, earns $5 an hour as a fast-food employee. Patty earns $4 an hour as a sales clerk at a clothing store. But even with two incomes, they couldn't afford the rent.
Cervantes applied for the HomeAid residence at the El Modena Community Center. The family managed to stay together by living in a garage offered to them by a relative. But living in the cramped room that measured only 200 square feet offered little comfort.
Maria, the daughter, says all she ever wished for was a little privacy.
"My friends always talked about going to their own rooms and using their own phones," Maria said. "It made me want to cry sometimes because I didn't have anything like that. All I could do was go to the bathroom and cry."
Now Maria will have her own bedroom, a room that is the same size as their relative's garage. Shy and soft-spoken, she says she will not tape or hang posters on the walls like other teen-agers. Too messy, she says. Instead, she plans to keep the walls "clean and pretty."
The Cervanteses qualified for the HomeAid program because they tried to stay together although they couldn't afford rent in the regular housing market, says John Braithwaite, executive director of the El Modena Community Center, which will manage the shelter for the county.
"This place should help families get back on their feet and give them a chance," Braithwaite said.