Nearly one out of every seven women in Florida live in poverty, and that number is even higher in Duval County. Meanwhile, about 76 percent of single-parent families headed by women in Jacksonville are struggling to afford basic needs.
Those were just two of the big takeaways from Wednesday afternoon’s “Women in Poverty in Northeast Florida” panel discussion at the Jessie Ball DuPont Center, hosted by the Women’s Giving Alliance - a nonprofit that helps fund organizations that support women and girls in Northeast Florida.
There are about 343,000 households in Duval County. Of those households, 128,000 of them fall below the ALICE threshold. “Which means they’re struggling to make ends meet on a monthly basis,” Jeff Winkler, Head of Basic Needs at United Way of Northeast Florida, explained Wednesday. “They’re not able to pay for basic needs and basic necessities on a monthly basis.”
ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Those are households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level (FPL), but less than the basic cost of living for the county.
The cost of living is based on a bare-minimum household survival budget that doesn’t include any savings. According to United Way, the annual household survival budget in Duval County is $19,416 for a single adult and $52,692 for a family with two adults, an infant and a preschooler.
The Federal Poverty Level in Duval County is $11,770 for a single adult and $24,250 for a family of four.
Winkler said the federal poverty guidelines haven’t been updated since 1974. “One of the main reasons the ALICE report came about was because those guidelines are so antiquated,” he said. “We felt, as a network, we needed to come up with a more effective and measurable way to determine, what does it take to survive in each of our communities.”
According to Winkler, there are just under 90,000 households that have families with children in Northeast Florida. Of those households, about 32,000, or 36 percent, are headed by single women.
“Only 24 percent of these households are living at self sufficiency levels,” said Winkler. “That means that three-quarters of all the households that are led by single females are below the ALICE threshold, which means they’re struggling to make ends meet every month. And 47 percent of those households are living below poverty.”
When discussing poverty, and especially women in poverty, Dawn Gilman, CEO of Changing Homelessness, a nonprofit that coordinates efforts and advocates for the prevention and reduction of homelessness, said it’s important to note that everybody who is homeless is in poverty or well below the poverty level. But only a very small number of individuals who have experienced poverty will ever experience even one night of homelessness.
And according to Gilman, most of those who do experience homelessness will only do so once in their life and they will probably find a way out on their own in less than 21 days.
When you look at homeless individuals there are far more men than women, but, Gilman said Wednesday, when you look at homeless families, the vast majority of them are single-parent families headed by a woman.
Gilman said that discrepancy may be because single homeless women frequently find friends or family to stay with. And if they don’t have anyone in their lives who is willing to help, those single homeless women often take drastic actions to stay off of the streets at night. “Which means they may be doing safety sex,” Gilman said. “Sex so they can stay in a place, not be on the streets.”
Gilman said there is a great need for shelters and services specifically for single homeless women.
“Most of the shelters in our community were built on, at that time, the correct premise that the majority of people who were homeless were single men,” she said. “We have seen a shift in that. Nationally, about 25 percent of all people who experience homelessness are female. Many of those are single women and there are very few resources for them.”
“When we are talking about homelessness and homelessness in Duval County, yes it is street homelessness, we have 300 to 500 people who sleep on our streets any given night,” Gilman went on to say. “There’s also a much more hidden population - usually young, single moms with young kids. And that is something that our shelters were not necessarily built for originally but that we have to figure out how to solve.”
And Gilman said when children are struggling with homelessness, their education suffers.
“Any time a child switches school like that mid year they have a tendency to lose up to three months of their educational attainment,” she said. “So, very often, even before a household falls into literal homelessness, they’re bouncing from couch to couch. It’s very hard for those kids, even if they’re good at school, if they like school, it’s hard for them to maintain and achieve as they should.”
What was made clear during Wednesday’s discussion is that a lack of affordable housing is the main issue driving homelessness and poverty in Duval County.
“Over the last decade while median household incomes have not necessarily increased when you adjust them for inflation, household costs have increased 17 percent for individuals and 21 percent for households of four,” Winkler said. “The primary driver for that increase is that over the last ten years there’s been a 20 percent increase in the cost of housing.”
“Many of our low income families are spending upwards of 40 to 50 percent of their annual income to cover just housing,” he said. “That leaves very little for much else.”
And as prices rise, availability falls.
Winkler said there are about 1.6 million renters in Florida who fall below the ALICE threshold and about 1.1 million rental units at or below market value. That leaves roughly 500,000 households without access to affordable housing.
According to that household survival budget referenced earlier, housing costs for a single adult in Duval County should be at or below $628 a month.
“I would argue that many of our families here in Northeast Florida are hard pressed to find adequate housing at that rate,” said Winkler. “So even at a survival level, the amount that families need to earn is a very conservative estimate.”
A recent study in Jacksonville found that permanent supportive housing with individualized support could help end homelessness in our community and it would cost taxpayers 30 percent less than it does to maintain them as homeless on the street.
Additionally, participants in that study saw an increase in monthly income of $244, health insurance participation rose by 56 percent, time spent behind bars fell by 72 percent, the number of arrests dropped by 65 percent and area hospital costs fell by 57.6 percent.
It’s Not All Bad News
According to Gilman, Duval County has seen a 30 percent overall decrease in homelessness since 2009.
“We’ve made the most progress in veteran and chronic homelessness,” she said. “Veteran homelessness has dropped nearly 80 percent and chronic homelessness almost 50 percent. And that is due to a focus and funding on the federal level for both of those groups.”
But the number of homeless women at the head of single-parent families has kept fairly steady.
“We’re looking at about 250 households on any given night,” she said. “That has remained fairly consistent or increased over that same period of time.”
Gilman and Winkler both think homelessness and poverty are solvable. The issues are a lack of awareness and money.
Winkler believes if you raise awareness, the money will come. So he recommends everyone try one of the poverty simulations offered by United Way.
“It’s an incredibly eye-opening experience,” he said, speaking of the poverty simulation. “And until we raise awareness about what these hard working families are dealing with on an everyday basis, it’s very difficult for us as a community to understand what needs to happen to help these families.”
“I think it’s incredibly important for those people who are decision makers, who are policy makers, to truly connect with their constituents and the needs in their community,” he went on to say. “This poverty simulation is just one way in which they can do so. But we’ve heard from many folks who have gone through this simulation [and] that they wish that their elected officials would go through it as well. So we obviously would love to make that opportunity available to them.”