Finding the path from homelessness

'I didn't want my kids to think this is how things should be.'

December 24, 2012|By Jill Cowan
  • Sonia Rebkowitz plays with her son Johnny Acosta, 7, in their home at the Costa Mesa Motor Inn on Monday.
Sonia Rebkowitz plays with her son Johnny Acosta, 7, in… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

"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.

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