NEWPORT BEACH : Charity Struggles With Pinched Budget

It was seven years ago that Debby O'Connor first delivered two bags of groceries to a homeless couple and their newborn baby.

That couple, O'Connor said, now have six children and are still moving from cheap apartments to motels and shelters in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.

"It upsets us to see children living in that kind of poverty," O'Connor said. "Things are tough out there for a lot of people."

As the executive director of the nonprofit Fish Harbor Area Inc., O'Connor has shared the sadness, frustration and occasional hope of thousands of people living in and around a beach community better known for yacht clubs, foreign car dealerships and oceanfront houses.

Last Saturday, the Fish organization marked its 25th birthday with a pancake breakfast fund-raiser at the Newport Dunes. The event raised only about $1,000.

"Donations are way down this year," O'Connor said. "Some people who used to donate to us have called in asking for help."

O'Connor said that because of the bad economy, the United Way-member organization has seen its private donations plummet. It raised $39,000 in 1992 and has raised $15,000 so far this year. The roster of needy has increased more than tenfold in the past seven years, she said.

Take, for example, Jennie and Tom Tafoya and their four children, ages 6, 7, 12 and 13.

They pay $565 per month for a cramped Costa Mesa apartment near Victoria Street. Jennie Tafoya, 32, cares for the children while her husband, 30, attends junior college, she said.

"My husband is out of work, and it is tough, with or without a job," Jennie Tafoya said. "We are not homeless, but I don't know how much poorer we can get."

In the past six months or so, the family has received regular deliveries of groceries, according to Fish organization records. And before the start of the school year, the organization gave the children used clothes to wear to school.

The Tafoyas are one of the 340 families that receive monthly food or rent assistance from the agency, O'Connor said.

Fish organization officials say they have helped a variety of those in need: There is a recovering alcoholic living alone in a Costa Mesa apartment darkened by closed doors and covered windows. There is a 3-year-old girl living with her parents in a tiny trailer that has a bathroom with no door and a kitchen with no dining room. There is a cashier at a supermarket who could not afford day care and resorted to leaving her 7-year-old child in the parking lot while working a daylong shift.

Most of the people who ask for food or rent assistance need help only once or twice and then can get back on their feet, O'Connor said.

The Fish organization has a four-member staff and a network of about 100 volunteers who field phone calls, deliver food, hand out birthday gifts, baby food, feminine hygiene products and drive people to and from doctor appointments. The organization recently hired a bilingual staffer to handle the growing needs of the Latino population concentrated in Costa Mesa.

During August, the Fish organization helped 20 families--a total of 71 people--meet rent payments. Thirteen families who had already been evicted were put up in temporary housing.

In addition, Fish also coordinates a food delivery program with Hoag Hospital for dozens of senior citizens who can no longer cook for themselves.

"We don't mind helping people; we want them to help themselves, too," said June Russell, Fish Harbor's assistant director. "In this business, you don't see a lot of good things happening. You see a lot of tragedy, and you deal with the frailty of life."

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