The American Dream had dropped far out of sight for Sandra Meade, one of the thousands of homeless who live at the farthest edges of society in Orange County.
That hallowed vision of upward mobility, the happy Rockwellian image of hearth and job security, could just as well be on the other side of the moon for Meade.
The 30-year-old high school dropout from Ohio was married, working in a nursing home and living in an apartment before her world collapsed from marital and economic setbacks. She then joined the ranks of the jobless as well as the homeless, living with her 3-year-old son, Matthew, inside a '76 station wagon, parking overnight like so much flotsam on some of the area's nicest business and residential streets.
Now she feels she's getting another chance, another shot at the Big Dream.
Seven weeks ago she and her son moved into the Thomas House Temporary Shelter, a free five-unit apartment refuge in Garden Grove for homeless families. She concedes the shelter's neighborhood--a harsh milieu of concrete-and-dirt courtyards and roaming drug traffickers--may not seem overly encouraging.
But what matters most to Meade and the six other families in the shelter is that they are given food, clothing and their own rooms, and are plugged into the county's public and private network for employment and schooling.
Meade is now taking a computerized reading-and-writing skills program at The Times Literacy Center at Orange Coast College and working once a week at the campus cafeteria.
"All I want is what everyone else wants--the nice home, decent job, regular school for my kid," says Meade, who receives $500 a month in welfare. 'I'm not going to slip back again--not if I can help it."
Thomas House is one of the 15 homeless shelters consisting of 400 beds in Orange County that are open wholly or partly to families. About 12,000 people, half of them children, are homeless here.
The five-unit Thomas House, which opened in April, 1987, and has since served more than 200 families, is one of the smaller such shelters. It was founded as a nonprofit, independent community effort by a group of middle-class volunteers--believed one of only three family shelters in Orange County that were launched without direct affiliation with an established community organization.
"Their project demonstrates how people can become deeply committed to the shelter movement, even though most of them had never been involved in these kinds of social projects before," says Susan Oakson, executive director of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force, which is observing Nov. 9 to Nov. 16 as "Homeless Awareness Week."
Bernie Selz, one of Thomas House's founding board leaders, puts it this way: "Five years ago, a lot of people thought we were crazy to do what we were proposing--to rent apartments and open them as a shelter for homeless families."
By late 1986, Selz, a longtime member of the St. Vincent De Paul Society, had enlisted more than a dozen volunteer backers, including some who were members of St. Barbara's Catholic Church. The new shelter was named after St. Thomas Villanova, a patron saint of the poor.
"You do it because you're a Christian and this is your community," says Selz's wife, Mary, who is also an organizing board member. "It's the dues you pay for the space you occupy on this earth--because we're lucky to have so much and these others have so little."
Despite the small-scaled operation and modest annual budget ($70,000), Thomas House has won its share of community grants, including $8,000 from the national Catholic bishops' fund and $50,000 from Register Charities. GTE recently donated a van, and the shelter is also in line for grants from the cities of Fountain Valley and Santa Ana.
The project still needs to raise another $20,000 by June 30, hopefully through corporate grants and other community donations, Bernie Selz says.
Nonetheless, Thomas House is still very much an out-of-pocket operation for the project's 11 board members and a handful of other regular backers. Some individual members have paid as much as $3,000 a year to help keep the operation going, Selz says.
Thomas House first rented three units in one Garden Grove apartment building--one of only handful of Orange County shelters that rent directly on the private market. Monthly rents are substantially less than the normal rents for that area: $650 for a three-bedroom (one room is used for the shelter on-site office); $600 for a two-bedroom; $550 for a one-bedroom.
Last year, Thomas House also took over two one-bedroom units at a nearby complex, but these units are rent-free under a government-supported program with Garden Grove and three private low-cost housing groups.
Shelter families, who learn of Thomas House by agency referrals or through the homeless grapevine, can stay up to 90 days--enough time, backers hope, for a family to locate jobs and save money for affordable rental housing.
"We want to give the families breathing room, a chance to become stabilized. All of them have gone through so much personal and financial turmoil," explains Patty Gallivan, Thomas House's on-site staff director and its only paid member.
Thomas House "gives the homeless families a real place of their own for awhile--a real address to use for applications, a nearby regular school for their kids," she says.
For example, the Douglas family from Houston--Aaron 29, Gwendolyn 26, and their four children--moved into Thomas House several weeks ago after months of living as transients, first with relatives, then in their four-door car. Just recently, Aaron found a job as a warehouse forklift driver.
The shelter program also features visits from public and private agency specialists who provide counseling for parents and tutoring for children. Gallivan and her full-time volunteer student aide, Mary Drumm, guide families through the government network for food stamps and other financial assistance, medical clinics, employment offices and the like. They also drive shelter families to such offices.
Says Katrina Harris, 23, formerly of Los Angeles, who is moving with her two children to their own one-bedroom apartment--under a federally assisted rent program--in Santa Ana: "That's one of the best things about living in Thomas House. Your introduction to that whole confusing network is faster and more thorough than if you did it on your own."
But Harris and the other residents say it is the more intangible elements that count the most--especially the sense of an extended family that enfolds the entire shelter project.
And, they say, it isn't just Gallivan, who is regarded as a loving "mother figure" by resident families, but also the several Thomas House board members who take weekly turns as on-site "duty directors."
Duty directors for the week remain on-call around the clock and visit the apartment three or four times week, pitching in on counseling residents, providing referrals and buying food. "It's real hands-on duty. It's something that we feel we want to keep doing--a truly direct, personal involvement in this project," says board Chairwoman Colleen Foster.
"It's a real home here. We're treated like people. They fuss over us like real family," says Martha Flores, 20, who lives with her husband, Ernesto, 23, and their three children in the same unit where Gallivan has her office.
It is a common sight to see the children of the shelter families, including 4-year-old Mayra Chavez, who also lives in the main unit, come running to Gallivan to show off their latest drawings.
And Gallivan's pride and joy in her tiny office is the wall covered with snapshots of past and present shelter families--the Thomas House family.
For Gallivan, seeing certain pictures is painful. These represent some of the families that seemed to have vanished.
"No one seems to know what has happened to them," she says. "You try not to think the worst."
Gazing again at the wall of pictures, she brightens up. She is pointing to families who appear firmly back on track--the parents have regular jobs and affordable apartments, the ones who have gone back to school to finish their high school education or pursue college training. The ones who seem to be making it.
"We still hear from them. Oh, they drop by or call us, sometimes to chat, sometimes to get advice," Gallivan says. "It makes us feel good. It validates what we're trying to do."
"That's our dream," Gallivan adds, "to help give them that caring boost, to show that other people still believe in them."