By Brad Marshland
Just blocks from “The Happiest Place on Earth,” in one of the richest counties in America, Demond, Ashley, and their four kids have been living in a cramped, run-down motel room for a year and a half. Between the six of them, they share one bed and one small couch. Surprisingly, they aren't welfare cases; Demond and Ashley both work full-time at Walmart. But like thousands of other families in Orange County alone, they struggle to save enough to pay the first-month/last-month/security deposit that landlords require. And so they're stuck.
“It eats up all your money so you can't afford to move,” says Ashley, “Even if you could afford an apartment of your own, with kids, and the rent, you can't save any money to do anything except stay here.” To compound the problem, Ashley's mom had an eviction when Ashley was living with her – a fact that shows up on Ashley's credit history. So Demond and Ashley pay $1300 a month for the dubious privilege of living in a single motel room where the kids aren't even allowed by the management to play in the parking lot. For Christmas, they'd like nothing more than to get out of the motel and into a stable home.
Bruno Serato came to the U.S. with just $200 in his pocket, worked his way up from dishwasher, and is now the owner of the Anaheim White House Restaurant. For the last ten years, he has worked to improve the lives of motel kids. His non-profit foundation, Caterina's Club, feeds 1,200 poor kids a day with meals cooked in his restaurant kitchen between lunch and dinner, meals delivered by van to nineteen different after-school programs in seven Orange County cities. But even donating his own labor and his own kitchen aren't enough. “Every night when I feed the kids, I'm very happy.” says Serato. But then when the children go back to their motels, his mood changes. “Because I know where they go. Motel area, you have prostitution, drug addict, drug dealer, sexual abuser, pedophile... But you also have the great American families, the ones who work all their lives and end up in a motel room because they lost their home; they lost their job. And they know they can't stay in that room any longer, for the safety of the children.”
Serato's new goal is to move these families out of motels into safer, more stable living situations. According to Caterina's Club, 75% of the men and women living in area motels have jobs. But like Demond and Ashley, they're stuck between bad credit and a lack of sufficient savings to put down a deposit on an apartment. If they could just get over those hurdles, their monthly expenses would be comparable, but would buy so much more.
Through Caterina's Club, Serato has initiated a new program to cover the costs of security deposits needed to move families out of motels. The Welcome Home program selects from a pool of applications for assistance, targeting working families who just need that extra help. Serato himself is not a rich man. During the recession, he had to take out a second mortgage to keep his food program running. But there's more than one way to feel rich. With the help of donors, Serato has placed 65 families into their own homes.
Family number 66 is Demond and Ashley's, and the good news could not have come at a better time. They didn't know what they would have done if they'd had to spend another Christmas in a motel room so small that there's not really room for presents. Now that their application has been accepted, they can move to their own home, one where the kids can finally have their own beds.