Organization lights the path to recovery

COSTA MESA — They're a long way from the Hawaiian beaches of Oahu, where, they said, their addiction to meth eventually made them homeless, forcing them to live out of a tent in a place called Barbers Point.

They used to stay up all night "tweaking" with other meth addicts who'd gather there. They had tiki torches outside. Their tent was pretty big. Visitors came and went. They had lots of fellow methhead friends, but something in life was missing.

Meth always seemed to have the edge. So they got out.

These days, Fred and Lisa Zoller and their daughter, Fantasia, 9, and son, Fredyzia, 5, live in a cramped-yet-comfortable subsidized room at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Harbor Boulevard. A pool sits right outside their door. Their twin bed butts up against the kitchen. The sleeping quarters for their children: a free-standing bunk bed.

But life is good now.

For nearly a year, the couple has slowly managed to become productive, rent-paying, independent, hard-working citizens — a complete turnaround from their desperate living situation five years ago in Hawaii, where they were born and raised.

"We weren't the only ones doing meth," said Lisa Zoller, 46. "Just about everybody's addicted to the stuff over there."

Today, she works long hours at a senior care facility in Costa Mesa, where she recently was promoted as an administrator.

Fred Zoller, 45, Lisa's husband of nearly a decade, seems to have found his niche in nursing. He has a knack for helping the disabled.

He's working for the Illumination Foundation, an Irvine-based nonprofit that helped set up the Zoller family with their new living situation, in which the Zollers pay cheap rent — $600 — for the motel room they live in.

And Lisa and Fred both owe their gratitude to a guy by the name of Paul Leon, the executive director of the foundation, which was founded three years ago with $50,000 seed money and with one purpose in mind: To try and help at least a portion of the overlooked 35,000 homeless people who live in Orange County.

"This is just one story," said Leon, referring to Zoller couple's success. "There are thousands of stories out there. It's amazing what drugs and alcohol can do to people's lives. I've seen it time and again. People can be doing fine, then suddenly drug addiction enters the picture, and before you know it their lives are thrown into total disarray."

Leon knows because he used to work as a nurse in Orange County's public health division. The job put him in contact with thousands of residents who've suffered from both physical and mental disabilities due to drug addiction or from some unlucky circumstance that forced them into the streets.

Some of them, for the record, are everyday citizens, Leon notes.

One time, he helped a local schoolteacher who ended up being spotted on the motel premises by some children, a somewhat embarrassing situation for the teacher.

Other times, people lose their jobs who didn't have any money saved up and were evicted from their apartments, Leon said.

Part of the problem of homelessness in Orange County, Leon said, is due to what he calls a critical shortage of affordable permanent housing. Plus, anybody who is working for minimum wage must work 125 hours a week to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, according to the Illumination Foundation.

That's where the Costa Mesa Motor Inn comes into play.

With more than 300 rooms, Leon has managed to strike a deal where he buys out a portion of the motel rooms, then hands them over to the homeless, charging them a minute fraction of what they would have to pay on the open market.

Each month, however, the rent goes up $100, so residents have roughly a year to get a job and get in gear until they are charged the full $875 a month. The average rate per month, without the help of the Illumination Foundation, is $1,200.

So far, the foundation has helped 170 families, and 70 families have "graduated" from its program and succeeded in moving out of the motel and into places of their own.

That's the Zoller family's next step.

But first, Fred said, he plans on getting his certified nursing certificate. When that happens, life will be really good.

"We've had a lot of issues in our lifetime," said Fred. "But we're finally getting organized. The great thing about the Illumination Foundation is that it helped us get organized. It set goals for us, and we've accomplished them."

For more information on the foundation, go to http://www.ifhomeless.org.

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