By M. Francesca Passeri, Esq. Salvatori Wood & Buckel –
Did you wake up in a bed this morning, get dressed and go to work? Did you scrape together change to put a gallon of gasoline in your car? Did your children get ready for school in a public bathroom? Were you worried about whether you or your family would eat today? Likely, it would be an unusual occurrence in your day to be confronted with hunger and homelessness. Since we live amongst one of the highest concentrations of millionaires, it may seem a distant reality that some members of our community struggle to find a safe place to sleep and a meal. Poverty and its effects are to be found in our backyard. The poor once held good jobs, owned homes and their children attended school with ours. With a single or series of misfortunes, our neighbors now find themselves unable to feed and shelter themselves or their families. Hunger and homelessness effect human dignity and the progress of the individual as well as the health of our society.
As a real estate attorney, I assist my clients to buy and sell real estate for personal use or investment. I have also spent the last three years of my professional life helping clients extricate themselves from the burden of real estate when it is sinking them into a financial hole. I see that crossing over from homeowner to homeless can happen more quickly than you may care to believe. The loss of a job or the illness of a family member can quickly exhaust savings and deplete assets. A house represents financial security, permanence, a place from which we leave and know we can return, a shelter from the world and a place of emotional comfort. A house holds the history of our lives. The loss of a home is a significant and life altering event. The Great Recession has caused serious financial hardship in our community that will resonate for years. With over 2 million houses still in foreclosure nationwide, the foreclosure crisis is not yet over.
There was a staggering 57% reduction in net household wealth from 2006 to 2011. The wealth of many American families was tied to equity in their homes. The nationwide reduction in housing values, coupled with excessive mortgage debt, has trapped many people in houses that they can no longer afford but are unable to sell, refinance or rent. Low income and minorities families are more likely to have invested in home ownership and not the stock market. They absorbed a disproportionate amount of the housing losses. Households with children make up the largest segment of losses in homeownership. When faced with trying to make a mortgage payment or buy food, many people are now experiencing hunger for the first time.
FACTORS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO HUNGER AND HOMELESSNESS
The stereotype of a homeless person is someone suffering from mental illness, alcoholism or addiction, who cannot maintain steady employment or make responsible decisions. They are the panhandlers or the disheveled soul pushing all of their Earthly possessions in a shopping cart. This is the most familiar face of hunger and homelessness. Chronically homeless individuals have slipped below the poverty line and are unable to find work sufficient to support their basic needs. They may suffer from a disability or have limited education or work skills. The new poor are people you know. They have lost their jobs or had a substantial reduction in income. They had been employed in construction, retail, real estate, or are retired. They slipped into poverty due to a weak economy and the collapse of the stock and real estate markets. Societal bias against the homeless and a presumption that homelessness is caused by character defects or irresponsible behavior results in distrust and limits employment opportunities further perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
According to a national 2011 Housing and Urban Development Point in Time count of homelessness, the number of persons that were homeless in families exceeded the number of chronically homeless individuals. The numbers of new poor have increased dramatically with the increase in foreclosures and cost-burdened and severely cost burdened households. A cost-burdened household is one in which greater than 31% of the family’s gross monthly income is paid toward housing cost. A severely cost burdened household is one in which 50% or more of the household income is attributed to housing cost. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of severely cost-burdened households climbed by 6.4 million nationally. Unemployment and underemployment contribute to cost burdening. As families spend a greater share of their income on housing, they are forced to cut back on spending in other areas such as food, clothing and healthcare.
Our local housing market has begun to recover as investors purchase foreclosed or short sale properties for use as rental units. As local residents transition from homeowners to renters as a result of foreclosure or short sale, the demand for single family homes has caused rents to increase. The constriction of the rental market is in turn forcing more households into homelessness as affordable housing becomes less available or not available at all. Certainly this is an unintended and unwanted consequence of economic recovery in our communities. Housing which is affordable to a person earning minimum wage is virtually non-existent locally. Federally subsidized housing is located in areas of high crime and some families have chosen homelessness as a safer option. Local affordable housing can be searched at www.floridahousingsearch.org.
The site does identify various multi-unit housing projects within Collier County. However, the rent for these units without a Section 8 housing voucher averages $900-$950 a month for a three bedroom/ 2 bath apartment located in Naples. For families living at or below the poverty level, affordable housing in Naples is virtually non-existent. The situation in Lee County is slightly more affordable, with the average rent for a similarly sized apartment running approximately $650-$750 a month.
Hunger is becoming an increasing problem in Southwest Florida. Local food pantries and non-profits are finding it difficult to meet the needs of the hungry. Harry Chapin Food Bank works with 150 partner agencies in Lee, Hendry, Charlotte and Collier counties. Through the local agencies, the food bank distributes emergency food. Locally the food bank distributes food through St. Matthew’s House, the Salvation Army and Grace Place, as well as operating a mobile food bank that serves 15,000 pounds of food to between 300-500 families at a time. In 2011, the food bank distributed 13.7 million pounds of food which represents a 30% increase over the food distributed in 2007. The amount of food delivered for the current fiscal year which ends June 30, 2013, is expected to increase to 18 million pounds. In Collier County, 30 percent of all residents receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which is the food stamp program. Of the SNAP recipients, only 4% live in Immokalee. Harry Chapin Food Bank serves 3,000 seniors a month and that number is expected to continue to grow as baby boomers retire. Many seniors obtain food assistance because they cannot afford to buy both medications and food.
Children also represent a growing segment of the population which faces hunger on a regular basis. Out of 48 public schools in Collier County, 31 schools have 50% or more of their students receiving free lunch. There are an abundance of studies that demonstrate the high health and social costs of children going hungry. Children who are consistently hungry fail to learn, are at risk of illness and impaired physical growth, do not socialize well, and suffer from low self-esteem. Many children do not eat regular meals when school is not in session. This summer, the United States Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has established 85 sites in Lee County and 18 sites in Collier County that will provide breakfast, lunch and a snack to children on weekdays. Twenty-four percent of Collier county families with children have food insecurity which is the real concern about whether or not there will be a meal. The national average for food insecurity is twenty-one percent.
Grace Place for Children and Families is located within and serves the Golden Gate City community. Grace Place provides educational services, after-school and summer camp programs and meals for students from all of the Golden Gate/Terrace schools. Over 89% of the students in these schools are economically needy and qualify for Free/Reduced Lunch based upon the Federal Poverty Threshold. These working-poor families live in substandard and overcrowded households which contribute to deprivations that lead to learning deficits for children. The majority of these children are Hispanic or Haitian and many are first generation Americans.
The Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County collaborates with partner agencies to facilitate solutions to prevent and end homelessness. Families with children represent the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and comprise 41% of the total homeless population. Most of the homeless families are mothers and their children. The coalition, working with the Collier County Housing Authority, established the Welcome a Child Home program. In 2011, this program assisted 30 families with 50 children by providing emergency motel stays, rent assistance or rapid re-housing services. Many local children find themselves living in motels or moving from the house of one family member or friend to another. Too often these children end up sleeping in cars or campgrounds. The 2012 Point in Time Homeless Count reflected 968 Collier County students were homeless as of the day of the count in January.
The needs of the homeless may be met by a temporary emergency shelter, security deposit or rental assistance, or permanent housing with supportive services for people with mental health, disabilities, or other special needs. Debi Mahr, Executive Director of Hunger & Homeless Coalition, advises that a special emphasis is being placed on delivering services to homeless youth between the ages of 14 to 24 years of age who are unaccompanied by an adult. These young people may be victims of child abuse, have aged out of the foster care system, or are left behind to finish schools after their parents or guardians have left the area in search of better economic circumstances. They are frequently referred to a “couch surfers” by their peers. Homeless children and young adults suffer from physical, emotional and social problems and many have histories of academic difficulties including suspensions and expulsion. According to the 20/20 Vision, a community ten year plan prepared by Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County to prevent and end homelessness by 2020, the cost of homelessness increases over time. The longer a person is homeless, the more likely they are to experience health, mental health and substance abuse problems, and possibly incarceration. Providing emergency shelter care or other supportive services to the homeless is far less costly than hospitalization or incarceration.
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
1. Provide financial assistance through a one-time or monthly donation to Harry Chapin Food Bank. For every $1.00 donation received the food bank can source and distribute $6.00 in food. Where else can you find that kind of return on your investment! Contact Harry Chapin Food Bank at 239-334-7007 ext. 141 or www.harrychapinfoodbank.org.
2. Host a fundraiser or food drive for a local non-profit agency. Many companies will match contributions from their employees.
3. Volunteer at a food bank or at a mobile food bank event. Volunteers are especially needed in the summer months.
4. Support the services of local non-profit agencies by sponsoring meals or making a donation of needed supplies. St. Matthew’s House needs sponsors for a day’s breakfast for 130 people. The cost of sponsoring the breakfast is $1.00 per person. St. Matthew’s House regularly collects: nonperishable groceries, shoes, socks, diapers and wipes, blankets, towels, clothing and jackets. Please contact 239-774-0500 or to make a donation of needed supplies or money.
5. Grace Place for Children and Families operates a food bank and is looking for volunteers on Fridays to sort and pack grocery bags for families in need. Contact 239-455-2707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
6. The Salvation Army of Naples operates a food pantry and provides rental and utility assistance. Because of limited resources the food pantry is limiting recipients to one box of food every other month. To donate, please contact 239-775-9447.