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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Faces of OC

Orange County, CA (not to be confused with Orange County, Florida or New York) has a reputation based on wealth, political conservatism and panache. Television promoted this image through The OC.

It’s true that the average OC income is nearly $20,000 higher than the state average, but there are also pockets of poverty and individuals in need of help. OC is multi-lingual. It is the home of the largest population of Vietnamese outside South Vietnam. Just 51 percent of the nearly three million in population are white. Thirty percent are Hispanic; 13 percent are Asian; less than two percent are African-American. If you’re adding my rounded numbers, the balance that takes you to 100 percent fall into that “other” category.

In the time we recently spent on the west coast, we sampled a variety of the faces of OC.

Mall surfing took us to my favorite upscale shopping area. The mall actually included a Jimmy Choo shoe store, proof that they don’t just exist on Sex and the City. I held – ok, fondled – a pair of $800 shoes. I hope my hands were clean. Just down the corridor at Versace’s, I admired a dress so exquisite that it should have been framed. The chic sales clerk actually chatted with me about it and encouraged me to try it on. She must have been bored. We saw Gucci’s and Tiffany’s and most high-end shops you can imagine. The mall was an adult Disneyland.

On the flip side, we visited a day program for the homeless. The facility opened daily at 6 a.m. for a free breakfast and also provided free lunch later in the day. Showers were available for the clientele. There were pool and ping-pong tables and tv viewing sitting areas. Counselors staffed the program to assist in locating living arrangements for those who qualified.

It was a large building that seemed to have at least 50 clients in the various sections. Mike said that most were men and that many had found comfortable chairs where they could sleep. I suspect that it’s safer to sleep there in the daytime than risk going to sleep out on the streets in the dark.

Motel People

And then there was a group I’d read about, but never observed – the motel people. Mike saw that some number of that motel’s residents, including musicians, appeared to be there in weekly-pay rooms due to work in the area. Many others just lived there.

There were newspapers hanging from some doors indicating that they planned to live there long enough to get a subscription. It was not unusual to see residents walking across the parking lot with grocery bags in each hand. We even saw a school bus drop off a child whose mom walked him back to one of the weekly rate buildings.

One question, though. The motel people were living in a city with an ordinance prohibiting guests from staying in a motel for longer than 28 days. What did they do then? Do they have to pack up and live on the street for a night before legally returning to the place they call home?

For the most part, these are the caught-in-the-middle people. They have jobs. They’re trying to take care of themselves and their families. They have enough money to pay modest rent. But they may never be able to save up that first and last months’ rent plus security deposit. They’re the working poor whose plight must be even more desperate in these difficult financial times.

Mike happened to see a family with small children enter the motel lobby carrying suitcases. He presumed they were checking in. Later in the day as we drove by, he saw the same family across the street holding up a cardboard sign. We presumed that they had scratched together enough money for one night in a motel to enjoy the luxuries of beds and baths, then they took to the sidewalk hoping to make enough for dinner or maybe another night’s stay.

I wonder what they’d do if they had the price of a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes.

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