A community of single parents

Welcome to Census Tract 750.03. Nestled in north Santa Ana, this is a piece of the Willard neighborhood, where neutral-colored apartment complexes, tri-plexes and four-plexes dominate the landscape.

This tract also is ground zero for single-parent households — 1,711 — in a city that outranks every other in Orange County in the proportion of such households, according to the latest U.S. Census.

Numbers don’t tell the whole story. For in this slice of Willard, children outnumber adults, and issues of immigration and crime seep into daily life. Here, poverty is the norm rather than the exception, and residents grapple with feeling unsafe.


“It’s just a hard place to live,” said Jon Pedersen, pastor of nearby St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church. “It’s a hard place to provide for your family.”

Its central location near malls, schools and a grocery store make it a magnet for people who are barely getting by. Families move here and sometimes end up staying for decades, migrating up and down a block, from one apartment to the next.

Though crime in Santa Ana is down 32% since 2002, the city is usually skipped by the tourists who visit Orange County for Disneyland and South Coast Plaza. To be sure, Santa Ana is not the image that comes to mind when thinking about the sprawling county of about 3 million and its postcard-perfect coastline.

Although Orange County has the lowest proportion of single-parent households in Southern California, Santa Ana stands as the highest in that category, with 12,023, or 16%. Laguna Woods, a small city in South County, has the fewest, 21, or 0.2%.

The roots of this anomaly can be found in Santa Ana’s decades-long history as a magnet for immigrants.

This part of the county was converted from orange groves to single-family housing to apartments, said G.U. Krueger, a housing expert in the area. Now, Santa Ana is one of the most densely populated cities in the country.

Michael Ruane, director of the OC Community Indicators Project, which studies trends in the county, said Santa Ana has always stood out statistically because of residential overcrowding, high school dropout rates and the educational level of adults.

But it’s also one of the least expensive areas in the county.

“That’s why you would live there, or have to, or be unable to move from there,” he said.

Laura Arreola, 43, may be one of those people. She’s lived in various apartments off Parton Street for 14 years. All of her four children have attended schools in the area, where empty strollers sit on overgrown lawns and dusty toys spill onto the sidewalk.

Merchants hawk fried pork bellies and produce from white trucks that serve as gathering points for children. In this tract, more than three-quarters of the households include children.

But the only open space in the neighborhood is the local school, Willard Intermediate, which serves as the de facto park. Children also play in alleyways and the church’s patio.

After Arreola’s marriage fell apart 16 years ago, she came back to this strip — because of its proximity to schools, she said — to raise her children. She kept them busy with Boy Scouts, folklorico dancing and sports, so they didn’t have time to play in the streets. Over the years, she has feared for her safety.

“It’s hard for a person to go out,” she said.

She misses the tranquil atmosphere of her old neighborhood in Huntington Beach, but it’s too expensive, so she stays.

The proportion of married households in the tract has decreased since 2000, to 42%.

Catherine Carrasco, 53, used to be in one of those married households until her husband died late last year. Now she is raising two teenagers, ages 16 and 17, and can barely afford her rent. Her 28-year-old daughter, Alexandria, lives with her too. She knows she is far from being the only single parent here but believes the issue is deeper than culture.

“It’s probably because of the poverty,” she said, sitting on a bed in the den of the two-bedroom apartment she has lived in for 30 years.

It wasn’t always this way. In the late 1970s and ‘80s, the neighborhood was known for large parcels of land and lush landscaped yards, but those blocks attracted developers, who tore down homes and built large apartment complexes. Today, the remnants are seen in the single-family homes that dot certain streets.

Jay Trevino, executive director of Santa Ana’s Planning and Building Agency, doesn’t know why such development was approved but said the area is an example of what happens when the emphasis is on developing property, not on developing a community.

“I think it’s a good case study of the consequences of the land-use decisions we make,” he said.

The average rent in the Willard neighborhood is estimated at about $950 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Barry Cottle, a local developer who works with the Orange Housing Development Corp. to offer affordable housing, said his company purchased two Santa Ana complexes, a total of 65 one-bedroom apartments. During remodeling, some one-bedrooms were transformed into roomier three-bedroom apartments.

Cottle also became one of several property managers to join Pedersen on a community task force that is seeking ways to improve the quality of life in the Willard area.

“We need those managers and those owners to be part of the solution,” Cottle said.

Pedersen, whose church is cater-corner to Willard Intermediate, knows the area well, having worked here for almost a decade, including a stint as a math teacher at the school.

“It’s a neighborhood that’s extremely challenged by a high population density and poverty,” he said.

Pedersen, who is leading the charge, knows his vision is long-term.

“We’re talking years,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons we have to do it.”

Michele Martinez, a Santa Ana councilwoman whose staff is involved with the task force, said she was invited to tour the neighborhood by another local pastor three years ago. She said she never knew just how many apartments were in the Willard area.

“They’re just like little neighborhoods,” she said. “I was blown away.”

But to Jennifer Ramos, a 22-year-old single mother, this is normal.

She rents a one-bedroom in a sky-blue four-plex for $500 a month. The Santa Ana native, who lives with her 3-year-old son, Nathan, is studying massage therapy for a simple reason: “So I can live in a better place,” she said.

“But for now, it’s here.”

Times staff writers Ken Schwencke and Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.