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Bridging the Gap

Pensacola’s Struggle with Poverty
By Jennie McKeon

For two hours I lived in Ben Bolings’ shoes. I was a middle-aged, laid-off computer programmer with two young boys and a pregnant teenage daughter. My wife, a receptionist at General Hospital, had to bear the burden of paying our $610 mortgage and $285 in past due utility bills as well as unforeseen expenses, such as school supplies. No one in the family had health insurance, except for my wife, because it’s too expensive.

On July 31, about 30 people gathered in the new Waterfront Mission dining room on a rainy morning to participate in Catholic Charities’ Poverty Simulation. People were divided into various situations of poverty. There was the individual living in the homeless shelter, a single mom, senior citizens trying to survive on Social Security and in the center of the room, the Bolings.

Ten minutes equaled the span of the week. A loud whistle indicated the week’s end. During those rushed ten minutes you had to pay your bills—maybe pawned an item or two to pay those bills—or waited in line at the social services office. Every time you turned around another bill or bill collector popped up and every desk you visited required a transportation pass.

“Transportation is the number one barrier for our families,” said Estella Lee, Bridges to Circles coach. “You cannot go anywhere without a transportation pass.”

Carlyse Rustand, Santa Rosa County outreach coordinator for Habitat for Humanity, was my wife during the simulation. She would be frustrated when she came home from work and realized I had not accomplished anything until she tried to run errands with me.

We had to cash her check, but the bank required a transportation pass, which we didn’t have. After trying our non-existent luck at a check-cashing office, we moseyed over to Social Services where she demanded help. The social worker gave us two transportation passes, a small amount of grocery money and benefits for our daughter and unborn grandchild.

Although the Bolings were able to laugh through the chaos and frustration, the truth is some families do live this way. And it’s not very funny.

“This is based on real-life experiences,” Lee told us before we began. “This is not a game.”

If it were a game, we all lost. At the end of simulation, we Bolings couldn’t pay our bills.

To conclude the simulation, everyone sat in a circle and discussed what they learned. For some it brought out their frustrations and for others the story was a little too real.

“I was that family 20 years ago,” said Caridad Jones, family services coordinator with Habitat for Humanity. “It took me back, it was frustrating.”

Participating in the simulation were representatives from such groups as Habitat, AmeriCorps and Department of Children and Families. Ashley Wilkinson Meyer, the director of United Ministries, was very anxious to participate in her first simulation.

“It’s such a gripping way to recognize how out of sorts you would be in that situation,” she said.

It is the hope of Catholic Charities that more people from all walks of life will attend the simulations and change the community’s mindset.

“Our struggle in Pensacola is people don’t want to hear about poverty, they want to hear about tourism,” said Mark Dufva, executive director of Catholic Charities. “Many of our leaders feel if they focus on jobs, economic development, that that will help. That does not address the whole picture.”

The Standards of Living

In this economy, almost everybody has some financial difficulty—whether it’s a large medical bill, getting laid-off or just trying to keep food on the table.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 46.2 million, or 15.1 percent, of Americans are living in poverty. In Escambia County, 53,655, or 19.1 percent of residents are living in poverty. When you include children 18 years and under, the numbers increase to 17,779 or 28.2 percent.

The average person’s view of poverty is often skewed. Some might imagine the homeless panhandler as living in poverty and the minimum wage worker as lower middle class, but today poverty isn’t about whether someone has a job or not, it’s how thin they have to spread their income. In fact, 60 percent of full-time employees still live below the poverty guidelines.

“There’s generational families who have spent generations in poverty and situational poverty, the two require distinctly different interventions,” said Dufva.

Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida covers 18 counties, three of which—Gadsden, Franklin and Escambia—all have some of the highest poverty rates in Florida, according to Dufva.

Around 2007 Catholic Charities declared they wanted to cut the poverty in the United States in half by 2020.

“Sadly, we’re going backwards,” he said. “We were around 12.5 percent and now it’s up to 15 percent.”

Prosper Pensacola along with Catholic Charities’ Bridges to Circles program is working to inform the community about poverty and how it affects everybody.

“The poorest neighborhoods have low performance scores,” Dufva said. “Poverty impacts every other social indicator: Education, health, crime, teen pregnancy. You name it, folks in poverty struggle with it.”

Prosper Pensacola is a poverty solutions team under the Unite Escambia umbrella. The team is chaired by Tim Evans, executive director of Habitat Humanity.

In a video produced by Bob Gerold, Prosper Pensacola breaks down the Self Sufficiency Standard of Escambia County.

The U.S. minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour, that’s $290 a week, $1,290 a month and $14,500 a year.  According to Escambia County’s Self Sufficiency Standard—which calculates what a family needs to earn to pay for housing, child care, food, transportation taxes and miscellaneous expenses—for an adult to live a self-sufficient life one would need to make $8 an hour, which equates to $1,408 monthly and $16,895 yearly. That’s just for one adult. For a single parent family, one adult caring for one kid—an all too common scenario, the Self Sufficiency Standard calls for the adult to make $13.79 an hour, $2,427 a month and $29,128 a year. That’s $14,628 extra that a single mother or father with a minimum wage job needs to make. Catholic Charities’ majority of clients are African American single mothers.

“The higher majority of our clients are female single parents,” Dufva said. “If mom is still languishing in poverty, her ability to emphasize education is a struggle. Why do some get out and why do some not? How do you change the mindset of the family?”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and education institution, recently explored just how poor the poor Americans are. In the article titled “Air Conditioning, Cable TV and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today?” authors Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield do note that not all poverty-stricken families are homeless, but degrades the plight of the working poor by writing that they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and cable TV as well as food for the family. They also wrote that the average home was in good repair and had more space than the average European and that the U.S. Census exaggerates its reports:

“Regrettably, annual Census reports not only exaggerate current poverty, but also suggest that the number of poor persons and their living conditions have remained virtually unchanged for four decades or more. In reality, the living conditions of poor Americans have shown significant improvement over time.”

Building Bridges

Mary Adams is finally starting to take charge of her life.

“When I was growing up, my parents made all my decisions,” she said. “Then I got married and he did everything—write checks, go to the grocery store, get gas, et cetera.”

When she divorced her first husband, Mike, she was “left with basically no tools,” as she put it. And since her second husband liked to spend money they didn’t have, she was left in even worse shape after her second divorce.

“He tore me up financially—I could’ve said no, but I wasn’t strong enough,” she said. “I was so in debt it was pitiful, so I got rid of him. That’s the only way I can say it.”

When Mary opened her home to her nephew he got her into further debt. But she claims it was her fault for allowing it.

“You have to own up to what you do,” she said.

Because of her finances, she couldn’t take full custody of her son Doug, who is now 27 and has spina bifida. Mary’s home can’t fit all of his needs. Luckily, he is covered under his dad’s insurance. Doug lives with his dad and stepmom Connie and spends the weekends with Mary.

Of all people, it was Connie who decided to help Mary and take over her finances. Although Connie’s intentions were to help, she did what Mary’s parents and first husband had done in the past by taking charge and leaving Mary with no financial skills.

“I was working for a lady whose mother was in hospice,” Mary said. “She said ‘Here’s the plan, here’s your first paycheck, but we’re not going to give it to you unless you get your finances back from Connie.’ So I got ‘em back.”

Mary sought help from her cousin who heard about Bridges to Circles at her work. And on August 24, 2011 she started the program. She began to see the light. And in less than a year, she has learned to manage her bills, create a budget, and has even gone back to school to pursue a childhood dream of nursing.

“It’s like when you start a diet plan,” Mary said. “It’s a life-changing plan. It’s for the rest of my life.”

Now she doesn’t need help from Connie or her cousin.

“I don’t call her for anything—except recipes,” Mary said.

The mission of Catholic Charities is to help families in need no matter race or religion. And a major key in helping those families is changing the way their community views them.

“People don’t choose to be poor,” Dufva said. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years and I only met two people who didn’t want to work.”

Haley Richards, community organizer, saw the Bridges to Circles program develop from the start when she started as a volunteer.

“When I volunteered in the past, I gave out canned goods or donated things at Christmas time,” she said. “I never built relationships.”

Bridges to Circles builds strong relationships. It’s a hybrid of the Bridges Out of Poverty, a program developed out of the book by the same name by Dr. Ruby Payne, and the national Circles campaign. Bridges to Circles matches a family or individuals at least 18 years or older with an income 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or below with an ally. The family—or circle leader—completes a 15-week training course and conducts weekly meeting with their allies while receiving a hot meal.

The entire program lasts typically between 12 to 18 months. But if a circle leader needs more time, they won’t be pushed out of the program.

“We’ve had many successes,” Richards said. “We’ve had three families become first time homebuyers and two have started businesses. One restaurant—Sabor—and another web-based business.”

Circle leaders can even apply for the Individual Development Account program, where they can open up a savings account at Beach Community Bank. For every dollar they save, two more dollars are put in the account. The money comes from a federal grant from Department of Health & Human Services Assets and a local grant from D.W. McMillan Foundation.

“Six people are currently in the savings process,” Richards said. “The money can be used for businesses, homeownership or post-secondary education.”

The program works because the family is the leader and the ally is simply someone that holds the circle leader accountable and is there to be a shoulder to lean on.

“We put the client in charge,” Richards said. “They facilitate the weekly meetings, they run it themselves.”

Harold Cohen started as an ally two years ago. Retired from a career in insurance, he wanted to do something that would help the community.

“We meet with them and discuss their goals, plan to help them reach those goals,” he said. “We step back and let them make their decisions.”

Cohen said it’s rewarding to see a circle leader reach their goals.

“One lady I was working with was trying to go back to school,” he explained. “She kept running into road blocks while trying to get assistance. She was eventually successful in getting funding. She had persistence. To me, that was a success.”

About 25 families a year benefit from Bridges to Circles. Richards is hoping to recruit 50 to 60 more allies. Some circle leaders even graduate to become allies—a step Mary is taking.

“Everyone of us can bring something to the table,” she said. “We’re all equal. Everybody goes through some kind of something.”

Bridges to Circles not only gives those living in poverty someone to talk to—someone who may have valuable advice, but it also gives a chance for two people in different socio-economic backgrounds to break through barriers and bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

“When the circle leaders share with you, you see what has happened to them can happen to anybody,” Cohen said. “You become more compassionate, more concerned.”

Help is Out There

Meyer has been director of United Ministries for less than a year. She is the only paid employee. Like many charities, she relies on volunteers and community kindness to keep the place running. In the span of a half hour, she has a phone call and a knock on the door. Even when life can be frustrating, she remembers a favorite quote.

“Be kinder than necessary for everyone you meet is fighting some sort of battle,” she said, apologizing for not remembering the source.

United Ministries is an emergency assistance program for families. Homeless prevention Meyer said. Sometimes a family needs shelter or clothes, a lot of times they just need help paying rent or utilities for the month. Like Bridges to Circles, Meyer tries to act as a short-term ally, as clients fill out a budget form.

“Insurance is almost never filled out,” Meyer said. “Cable bills and phone bills are non-existent. They have SafeLink, or Obama phones as they call them.”

Meyer is hoping to expand United Ministries’ services and work together with the agencies in Pensacola. She’s overwhelmed at the amount of help that is available, but says it’s not enough.

“There are so many agencies, so many generous people, but I don’t think we’ve succeeded in making it better,” she said. “It takes a bit more than agencies. It takes a commitment of the people. It’s so easy to think that everybody else is okay when you live in certain areas of the city and never see the need.”

Dufva would like to see all of those agencies work together more fluidly.

“We shouldn’t be duplicating services,” he said. “Agencies should not be competing and conflicting.”

Like Meyer, he would also like to see emergency assistance organizations try to do more long-term good.

“Meeting the needs of shelter, clothes and food—that’s called charity,” he said. “Justice teaches them to fish. Underline the issues of why they’re in poverty. We have to do this in partnership with everyone.”

But let’s not forget the help that’s out there and forgotten. Meyer even said herself that she had no idea United Ministries even existed until she applied to work there. Agencies such as Habitat for Humanity, Manna Food Bank and Waterfront Rescue Mission, not to mention countless churches, help all financial situations.

Waterfront, in particular, is seen merely as a soup kitchen rather than making its clients do a 360- degree turn in life. Charles Mielke, although a native of New Jersey, was a chef living on the streets of New Orleans before he made his way to Pensacola.

“I lived on the streets, cardboard boxes, shelters—you name it,” he said.

He was working as a chef at the Fish House with “no outlook on life” when he stumbled upon a book in the free books box at the downtown library. He went to the Waterfront Mission where the chaplain that night referenced the same book.

“It was so uncanny,” he recalled. “I knew that’s where I was supposed to be.”

November will be five years since Mielke graduated from the Career Development Program. He got married, and with the help of his wife, opened Four Seasons Market and Eatery downtown.

“I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me years ago that I would be living in Pensacola, that I no longer live in a cardboard box—that I would be living in a nice home downtown.”

And as a way to pay-it-forward, Mielke hires other men who recently graduated or are currently in the Career Development Program. He has no trouble remembering their accomplishments.

“We have three gentlemen—Joey Griggy currently in the program who just graduated from PSC with his associate’s degree,” he said. “Our two graduates, Matthew Moore is studying at the Pensacola Bible Institute and Michael Lawlis graduated from PSC with a certificate in the medical field.”

The impact that Waterfront has left on Mielke in the year and a half he spent there is longstanding.

“They took an angry young man and helped showed him who Jesus is,” he said. “They lifted me up and encouraged me to do better.”

More Than Making Ends Meet

Those kinds of happy endings are possible. Even for Mary Adams. The confidence she gained from her Bridges to Circles meetings made her accountable.

“I used to not go to the mailbox,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep at night worrying who is going to be at my door or calling. Now I keep a register of my bills and budget two months in advance because you never know what’s going to come up.”

And if she ever needs a push, her son is her motivator. Knowing that she’s working to be able to provide for him keeps her spirits up.

“He’s my partner in life,” she said. He smiles. “He’s my gift in life. I admire him a lot. I want to build a life for him and take care of him forever and ever and ever…”

They enjoy much of the same things—Including karaoke. They regularly hit family-friendly karaoke nights singing solos and duets—mainly country tunes. No rap.

“My goals are to maintain my finances—know what’s coming and going, keep up with my health, finish my nursing degree, be a stand-up comedian and sing one song at the Grand Ole Opry before I die,” Mary said. “I can be anything I set my mind to do.”

It’s been a pretty impressive year for Mary, and while she works to keep her goals, she’s also grateful for what she has. Her home may need a coat of paint, but she has a roof over her head, she’s been working doubles at Pensacola Developmental Center, but she has a job.

“I’ll be paying when I die,” Mary said. “But I got a home, a group, great neighbors, school. Poverty is not a downward spiral—it’s not just the homeless.”

Mary is bolder now. She said she’s not shy. It’s hard to imagine a woman who sings karaoke and wants to perform stand-up comedy as a wallflower. But just like poverty can lead someone to depression, finding a way out can be just as impactful.

“I basically gave it my all, you gotta give it your all,” Mary said of managing her finances. “I’m 90 percent better than I was before. I’m more upbeat and happy. I feel alive now.”

How You Can Help:

Become an Ally – Register with Haley Richards 429-7296 ext. 17 or email richardsh@cc.ptdiocese.org
Spend a Month in Poverty – Attend a poverty simulation or go to playspent.org, to see what it’s like to live in poverty.
Educate Yourself – Go to uniteescambia.com and check out the poverty blog to become more informed about the poor in Pensacola.
Donate – Manna Food Pantries’ most needed items are: peanut butter, canned tomatoes, canned fruit, breakfast goods and canned vegetables. Manna Food Pantries, 116 E. Gonzalez St. 432-2053.

CATHOLIC CHARITIES
WHERE: Regional Office and Community Outreach Center located at 1815 N. 6th Ave.
DETAILS: 436-8754, 436-6411 or ccnwfl.org

HABITAT FOR HUMANITY
WHERE:  Main Office and Warehouse located at 300 W. Leonard St.
Pensacola ReStore located at 5810 N. Palafox St.
DETAILS: 434-5456, 476-0001 or pensacolahabitat.org

UNITED MINISTRIES
WHERE: 257 B E. Lee St.
DETAILS: 433-2333 between 9 – 11:30 a.m. or united-ministries.com

WATERFRONT MISSION
WHERE:  Administrative Office 380 W. Herman St.
Bargain Center 2125 W. Fairfield Dr.
DETAILS:  478-4027, 438-1462 or waterfrontmission.org