Monday, May 4, 2009

Portrait: Lee County, Florida

I'm 19 years old, and was born and raised in Manchester, NH. As a high school student, I never thought that I'd experience the face of homelessness, nor did I think that several others would be experiencing this. I also never took the time to think much about how the poor spending that I was doing, and the economy class that I was taking for senior year in high school would really teach me anything--but boy was I wrong!

I moved from Manchester, NH to Miami, Florida on June 16th 2007. This was an interesting experience for me, as I was going to Florida for the first time, and was going to be living with my fiancee and his mother at her house in Cutler Ridge, Florida. I participated in a program called Police Explorers in South Miami. Every Monday, I'd be dropped off by Jason's mother Rebecca, and I remember she used to say "Look at these people, begging for money. Why can't the VA help them if they are Vets of War?" I didn't really pay much attention then, but every week, there were more people in wheelchairs, sitting under the bridge with no legs, begging for money. It didn't make any sense to me, so I called the V.A. who told me that they were simply full, and had no more room for any homeless Veterans ofWar. I remember thinking "How could that be? These people serve our country, but can't get any sort of assistance when they are home? How is that fair"? My Fiancee Jason was at the time working as a manager for McDonalds Corporation, and paid his mother $500 a month for rent, and we were financially stable, as we actually had money to use for our needs at the end of the week. These were when times were okay, and good for us.

In October 2007, Jason's mom determined that since I turned 18, and Jason was 19, and we were both adults, we needed to grow up and live on our own. I was the stupid 18 year old that got offered a credit card from Citi Bank, and it was for a $1000 credit limit, and I thought "hey this is great, money to spend on our needs, and money for the move" We packed all the necessities, and moved from Miami, Florida to Cocoa, Florida, and I used that credit card to help pay for rent--Jason easily transferred to a McDonalds and was hired as a shift manager, and our rent was $550 a month for a one bedroom apartment. We also had no furniture when we moved to our apartment, so we decided to rent everything from a Rent-A-Center, and that was about $300 a month, and then we had cable/phone/internet which was about $200 a month, give or take. We realized that we still hadn't factored in Electricity through FPL, and realized that we had no money left over--so Jason's friend Donald moved in with us, and we were able to make it, but just barely. We had no assistance at the time, and I applied for Food Stamps, and thankfully was accepted, but they only offered $57.00 a month in food, so we had to use our food stamps sparingly..this was based off of Jason's income, and Donald got SSI. We were making it--but just barely.

The holidays came, and I remember that this was the first time in my life that I didn't have an actual holiday with gifts and family, and that was because we couldn't financially afford this. My bank account through Bank of America had gone to crap, and ended up negative, and they closed it, and my Washington Mutual account had also gone to crap because we had bills to pay, and me as a young 18 year old thought that bouncing checks was the way to go when you needed to survive--survival of the fittest in the sense. Bank ofAmerica offered me a credit card of $500.00 and I accepted it, because we were hurting for money--and Capital One offered me a credit card for $300.00 and I accepted it because again, we were hurting for money. My Bank of America Credit Card went to buying a car, because we needed one--we got a cheap 1991 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais, and the people who sold it to us, knew we didn't know much about the car, and decided to tell us it was working condition--a month later it went to the shitter, and died on us--Cocoa P.D. told us we coulndt drive the car because of the fumes. We were left with no car--and still struggled. I used the $300 from Capital One to get a Christmas Tree for Christmas--it was a fake one, but at least it would brighten our spirit for the holidays--and Jason, my fiancee cooked dinner with Donald--we spent the holiday the way people who have no money did--with friends and family that love you--and we enjoyed ourselves. We were still making it--but just barely--and I didn't pay any attention to the fact that I had no job and no income to pay off my credit cards--so I let them go.

In February 2008, we got our tax returns back--combined we had over $1500.00 and our apartment complex told us we needed to leave, because of three reasons. A. because of our dog, apparently they claimed our puppy was over 35 lbs, and he was not--we had the vet papers to proove he wasnt that large--B. because of Donald living there--when we told the office that he was living with us to help with bills, and C. because of the plumbing issue that we had been having since the first day we moved in. They told us we could leave willingly, or they could evict us--we decided to be smart, and move so we don't get an eviction on our record--our plans were to move to Orlando, Florida to an apartment complex called "Bella Casa" because they were furnished, with everything included, and between Donald, Jason and I, we could afford the bills and the rent. We also used Jason's last paycheck to get a 1995 Nissan Pathfinder from a buy here, pay here place in Cocoa, Florida and we told him we would mail the payments. We had the car, we had everything ready, and we told the apartment complex we were showing up--doing the paperwork--and moving in that day. We got to Orlando, Florida and the apartment complex, and they denied us--because Jason didn't have transfer paperwork for McDonalds, I had no income, and Donalds SSI wasn't enough to meet the income requirements alone--they kicked us to the street in Orlando, Florida and this was when things started to get bad for us--we were faced with homelessness for the first time in our life--but little did we know, this wouldn't be the last.

We decided to take some of the money, and get a motel for a few days, and try to enjoy ourselves because we were stressed and needed to get a plan together fast--We took two days to figure out what we were going to do--and we ended up deciding that we should move to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania where a friend, who we thought was a friend would help us. We drove 48+ hours up the east coast through every state on the East Coast, hitting every major city, and finally got to our destination. At first, we thought everything was going good--We had a hotel paid for by this friend, and then when it was a week into the stay, she took off with all our money, and left us stranded with very little money, and homeless in the middle of no where for the second time in a week--we were broke, and depressed--so we paid for a night in the motel, and Jason got on his knees and cried out to God, and said "Please help us" a day later, Jasons father John called us, and told us he would help us--it was the miracle we needed--but little did we know, the situation we would later get ourselves into.

Jason's father John lived in Fort Myers, Florida, in the county of Lee. We didn't know much about this county--though we knew we had two choices--stay homeless, or let his dad help--we chose to let Jason's dad help--so we drove all the way back down the East Coast to Fort Myers, Florida. When we got to our location, the only thing I really noticed in North Fort Myers was trailer parks--I didn't know why, but If it was a place to live, I was content. Jason's dad had a trailer, and he refinanced it in Jason's name--and we were responsible for paying the trailer rent, and the lot rent for $325.00 a month. Everything was included, we were doing okay. Jason got a job at a local McDonalds franchise on Pine Island Road inside the Wal-Mart. He was the highest paying shift manager, and he was making 40 hours a week, $10.00 an hour. We had plenty of money left over--until McDonalds laid Jason off because he was the highest paying manager there and they couldn't afford to pay him anymore--Jason tried for unemployment--but they denied him, and he appealed--and finally gave up--We ended up getting behind by rent and loan for 2 months--I was trying to get a job, and there was no where hiring--we didnt realize we needed to recertify for our food stamps, to continue getting the benefits--and so they were cut--and we had never thought growing up that we would need to go to a food pantry to get food--but we suckered it up and went--and I was shocked to see just how empty the food pantry was.

Eventually, in August 2008 we got kicked out of the trailer park (Rivers Edge on North Tamiami Trail and Callosahatche Bridge), because Jason's dad wanted the trailer back for himself--so Jason and I decided to look for an apartment--we ended up being given a week to find a place to live--and we ended up moving to a place in downtown Fort Myers, Florida named Reflections. We loved it--it was perfect for us--never did we think we would have the day that would come when we had to choose between paying rent, and paying electricity--but that day eventually came. Jason had gotten hired at a newly opened Panera Bread in Page Field Commons, and he was hired for $8.50 an hour, and had 15 to 20 hours a week--it paid the bills--mostly rent, but then the left over went to other bills--Comcast and FPL. Our Rent was $650 a month for a 2 bedroom 2 bath apartment--in October 2008, Donald took off, with our saved rent money--which put us behind in rent--and we had to choose between paying FPL, or Paying Rent. We paid FPL, and then turned our keys into the apartment complex and notified them that we were terminating our lease--but what we didn't realize was that we would owe them a totalof $2000.00 for prorated rent from the months we lived in the apartment complex because the original rate for the 2 bed 2 bath was $950, and they gave it to us prorated on a special--I've never in my entire life thought that I'd have to choose between rent and electricity--this was the first time for me, and this was when I started to realize that the economy was going downhill.

Instead of trying to get a different apartment, we moved in with someone we found off of Fort Myers Craigslist who needed a room mate to help with his financials. His name was Mark Wells. It was October 25th when we moved in. Jason and I no longer had a car, because it was repossessed because we couldnt make payments--so Jason had to take the bus to work. He had to take route 20, transfer at Rosa Parks, and then take 140 to work, which cut his availability down a lot. He was told by the store manager that he might loose his job if his availability couldn't be figured out, so he said the only thing he couldn't do was close--and that made him able to keep his job. November 2008 was what would throw us another curveball.

I found out November 20th 2008, a Friday that I was 8 weeks pregnant from my doctor. I had no pregnancy symptoms, and was just going to his office for a routine physical exam, where he draws blood for pregnancy to be safe from those that are sexually active--mine had came back positive. I didn't know what to do--and so I decided I'd go home to New Hampshire to be with my family and friends for the holidays--I moved from Lee County, Florida to Manchester, NH on December 4th 2008. I stayed in New Hampshire until March 24th 2009--but the economy in NH would throw me a curveball I didn't expect while being pregnant.

I ended up staying with my best friend Kim Beaulieu from December 4th 2008 to January 1st 2009, and on the 1st, I moved in with my mom--this lasted until the 5th, when she kicked me to the street because she couldn't financially afford me living there without help--and I ended up being homeless on the streets, again, while being 3 months pregnant. I never thought growing up that I'd have to live in a homeless shelter--and this was where my reality check began on just how bad the economy really was.

I ended up staying at New Horizons Homeless Shelter in Manchester, NH from January 5th 2009 to March 24th 2009. During my time at the shelter, I was able to get NH Medicaid, Food Stamps, and on the waiting list for Section 8 and NH Housing. I was also able to get seen for my pregnancy--but the waiting lists for housing were so long because so many people were jobless and had children, and they were priority--In the homeless shelter, there were people there for various reasons--some because their parents kicked them out--others out of income because they didn't have a job--and most were Vets of war--again with the Veterans of War--why was there no help for them?? There was little out there for anyone living in a homeless shelter. Why was this? Shouldn't we get some sort of assistance? I started to ask the questions in my head one by one--it just made no sense to me.

March 24th 2009, Jason my fiancee, paid my way back to Fort Myers, Florida. I said goodbye to all my family and friends, and DCF in NH said my services would easily transfer. I was 24 weeks pregnant when I arrived back to Fort Myers, Florida. It turns out this was not the case at all--I came to find out just how bad the economy in Lee County, Florida had gotten since I had left. Mark, our room mate, who worked for Lee County Parks and Recs had been laid off from work, and was moving to another state--we got our own apartment in the apartment complex--but that still wasn't the main issue at hand. I needed healthcare for my pregnancy--because I'm high risk.

I didn't know what Lee County had for services--so I applied for medicaid, food stamps and cash assistance. I was denied because I had my case open in NH, and NH had to fax a closure letter--and then they'd open my case, which could take up to 60 days, and that was time I didn't have. So I started to call around to OB offices to see if they could see me--no luck. I tried Family Health Centers, who said they can't see me unless my pregnancy medicaid was active, I tried Lee Physicians Group who said I was too far along, and I tried Physicians Primary Care of SWFL who told me I was too high risk to be seen at their office. They referred me to an office in Naples, Florida, and the doctor said he would see me, with no insurance because I was high risk, but I had no car and no way of getting to and from Naples--so I had to decline. I was furious--So the wait began and 24 weeks eventually turned into 28 weeks, and then 30 weeks. Finally my medicaid became active, and our food stamps were pending--we had to go to a food pantry once again, to ask for food, because we had none--and I was once again shocked to see how bare this was. By the end of the week, our food stamps were active, and we were thankful that something was going right--but when we asked about Cash, the county denied us--Jason made too much money which I didn't understand? He makes $800 a month, $500 goes to rent, $150 to Electric $100 to Cable, and $70 to bus passes, which left us with no money--and they denied us cash? Why? The questions started to run through my head again--but the one main reason I was given was the economy, which I slowly started to realize.

I had been getting childbirth education in Manchester, NH through Ourplace, Carenet, and Healthy Families. Carenet, Ourplace and Healthy Families were all federally funded--and these programs existed in Lee County--but when I called about services, they told me that their funding was cut and they no longer provided the classes, or the assistance with baby items--I was crushed. So then I realized "Well how am I going to get to my OB appointment?" So I called a few places that were listed to help with transportation, and they told me "We don't provide that service anymore, our funding was cut" which made me realize just how bad the economy was--but why wasn't there anything out there for pregnant high risk mothers who needed assistance? It made no sense to me--and thats when I googled "Why is there no help in Lee County, Florida" and came across your blog.

Jason and I still struggle today--often our arguments are about finances, because we have to sacrifice our needs for bills--like I previously stated, we have no money after we pay Rent $500 (which we have to save Jason's first paycheck to be able to pay on the 1st of the month) and $150 to Electric (Because FPL will turn you off if you don't pay on time--we've had that problem before) $100 to cable (I am on hold for a work from home job--because the economy-they cant hire me right now, but I need the phone internet and cable) and $70.00 for bus passes ($35 each, one for me and one for Jason) we're left with nothing left over--and I still struggle--for example--I got into an argument yesterday because I felt as though I was a bad mother because I couldn't get the baby things I needed for my daughter because we had no money--I called my mom to complain, and she said she can't help--because her finances go to bills too--it made me realize just how bad the economy is, and how much everyone is struggling--but the thing I can't understand is why there is no help for Lee County, Florida? We have the most foreclosures in the country, our homelessness rates are sky rocketing, and their are hardly any jobs anywhere--its pretty sad when McDonalds isn't even hiring anymore..its sad to see so many families--so many people including young people such as myself (19) and my fiancee (21) struggling--its really sad that people have to sell their things to make money--and its sad that the government isn't doing much to help our county either!

So thats my story, and those are my thoughts.

Lee County, FL