Finding the path from homelessness

"I think my refrigerator's broken," Sonia Rebkowitz said with a perplexed frown.

She was getting ready to go to work at a nearby Tuesday Morning store Monday afternoon. The door of the motel room was wide open and she was blasting a contemporary Christian station from a boom box perched on a small counter.

She opened the mini-fridge door a crack and stuck a hand in. Not cold enough.

In households gearing up for a day of celebration — or just chowing down in front of the TV — that might've been cause for panic. Rebkowitz shrugged it off.

It was Christmas Eve, but Rebkowitz, whose piercing blue eyes laugh even as she pleads with her two boys to quit fighting, didn't have anything too elaborate on the agenda. She had some English party crackers she got from work for the afternoon. Later in the evening, she said she might use a neighbor's microwave to make some popcorn to eat while watching a movie, she said. Maybe "The Grinch."

A church had donated small trees to families at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, where Rebkowitz has lived with her kids for about six months with the help of homeless service nonprofit Illumination Foundation, but concerns about fires meant no lights in the room.

Rebkowitz and her boys were celebrating their first Christmas back in a place of their own —however small.

But while she is grateful for everyone and everything that's helped her along a rough path out of homelessness, Rebkowitz still worries about living at a motel, where drugs and other negative influences are prevalent.

"I don't know what to say is normal living," she said, but "things happen I don't want my kids around. That's the norm. And I didn't want my kids to think this is how things should be."

According to Paul Leon, chief executive and president of the Illumination Foundation, there are about 1,500 families countywide that have been living in motels for more than three years.

Mostly, he said, those are concentrated in the county's largest cities, like Santa Ana, Anaheim and Costa Mesa. Out of those, he said, Costa Mesa has the fewest families living in motels.

"The motels are the easiest point of entry," he said, for families who are struggling to make ends meet. The foundation, he said, helps place families in motels as transitional housing. Once they're there, the foundation helps them find a more permanent situation.

By this time next year, Rebkowitz said, "I want to be in a house." She said she's maybe a month away from getting an apartment, but she needs to get more hours at work.

For the time being, Rebkowitz said, maintenance staff at the Motor Inn seemed better about fixing broken appliances than at the motel where they lived earlier this year.

She recalled heading out for the day once and coming back to find that the food had spoiled.

That was at the Santa Ana Plaza. Before that, she said, they lived at the Regina House, a women's shelter also in Santa Ana, and at a Prototypes addiction recovery home for women and children in Tustin. They also spent some time at the Armory Shelter.

Before that, Rebkowitz struggled with heroin and methadone addictions she developed after falling in with "fast friends" as early as middle school. She went to TeWinkle Intermediate School, where her son Richard Catano, a stoic 12-year-old with a Bieber-esque swoop of dark brown hair, goes now.

"He started where I stopped," she said with a chuckle.

On August 1, 2008, Richard and her youngest child, 7-year-old Johnny Acosta, were placed in foster care. She said a girlfriend had told her to "stay clean and sober" at all costs.

"My kids' dads are heroin addicts," she said. "I didn't know how to stay with them and stay clean."

Rebkowitz said she's been sober for more than four years. She finds strength in deep faith and the company of like-minded friends. Her turning point, she said, came after "a spiritual awakening."

In late 2009 and 2010 she got her children back.

Since then, they've kept her busy. Really busy. Richard and Johnny, who had been playing outside, burst back into the room. Immediately, the energy level in the small room, stuffed to the gills with mostly donated possessions, skyrocketed.

They tugged open the party poppers, and within minutes a pile of wrapping paper and toys was on the floor. Johnny, who could be the world's most adorable cyclone, tossed marbles at a window and blew a deafening plastic whistle in his brother's ear.

Rebkowitz told him to stop it. The whistling continued.

"He acts like that if my attention is on anybody else," she said with a sigh.

She wrested one of the whistles from his hand, as he squirmed around on the only real bed in the room. He slyly pulled a second whistle from his pocket.

And as Rebkowitz grabbed for that one, their battle over the toy devolved into a tickle war.

Johnny giggled gleefully.

"I like to hear you laugh," she said.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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