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County’s Poverty Hides in Plain Sight

Diana Derby pilots her wheelchair into the parking lot outside the Share Our Selves charity in Costa Mesa. This is a good day, because the chair is draped with four good-sized plastic bags of food, enough to feed herself and her two kids who are visiting for a couple days. But unless the Santa Ana motel managers, who have been so understanding to her the last 18 months, have another change of heart, she’ll be back on the street because of the $195 she owes them.

Her words came in torrents. Not angry torrents, just unbroken streams of laments and frustrations that she’s destitute and that people assume she’s on drugs or whatever and that no one seems to care whether she loses the last shred of dignity she’s got.

“I have to go out and panhandle, sir, for food and rent money,” she says. Forget a big meal. “I can’t afford a tube of toothpaste,” she says. Nobody gives a hoot, she says, whether she can’t maintain proper hygiene.

If it weren’t for Share Our Selves and her Main Place Christian church in Tustin keeping her afloat, she’d sink deeper into oblivion among the masses.

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I met Derby, who is 50, through Elizabeth Phillips, a case manager at Share Our Selves who found herself both marveling and sighing at Americans’ generosity toward Hurricane Katrina victims while appearing indifferent to impoverished people in their own county.

“What struck me,” Phillips says, “was that all of a sudden, which is good, this huge outpouring of people just wanting to help and feeling so rightly sorry for these people. The same people are living right here all along and we don’t even notice them.”

However nuanced poverty in America may be, Phillips’ point seems unassailable: We instantly free up millions and millions of dollars in out-of-pocket money to Katrina yet accept homelessness and poverty in our own backyard.

We find it easier not to be social workers who see the problems every day.

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Derby says she’s had a series of strokes that make it difficult to get a job. She subsists on $665 a month in federal and state disability. Her motel rent is $775. When I ask why she doesn’t move to a less expensive part of the country, she says that she was born and raised in Orange County and that these are the only people she knows.

Phillips cited a newspaper report that said three-fourths of New Orleans schoolchildren qualified for reduced-price lunches. Those figures parallel the numbers in Santa Ana and Anaheim, Phillips says.

The 2004 report on the Conditions of Children in Orange County indicates that nearly 200,000 students throughout the county are receiving free or reduced-price lunches. The number has increased 36% in the last 10 years, the report says.

On any given night in Orange County, the report says, nearly 28,000 Orange Countians are homeless. Of those, 19,500 are people in families with children.

The folks at SOS see this every day; their sense is that the rest of us don’t. My sense is that we see it but don’t want to think about it. Phillips entertains that thought, but adds, “Especially in Orange County, there’s such a divide where the haves and have-nots live. If you’re in Irvine or Newport Beach, you don’t even see it, so it’s easy to think it doesn’t happen around here. You never go to Santa Ana or Anaheim, except to Disneyland or Angels games, and so you don’t realize it’s there.”

If only, she says, the county -- or country -- had a commitment to affordable housing. If only, the more well-off Americans considered it an ongoing obligation to help the poor.

“This isn’t a plug for SOS,” Phillips says, “but we could always use more food in our food pantry.”

Sometimes, Derby says, she’d die just to have someone buy her a cheeseburger. “I cry for them [in the Gulf Coast], and I pray for them, but sometimes you have to look at the person next to you -- someone in a wheelchair at a street light. It’s hard to survive.”

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Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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