High Unemployment Means More People Living in Poverty

Tallahassee, FL – Florida's unemployment rate has inched up yet again. It's now back to 12 percent. High unemployment and the state's economy have more people depending on the kindness of others, and on state assistance. Lynn Hatter takes a look some of the people behind the numbers.

"We have 10 cases of water...oh, and all this has to go all this. This and that over there these saltines..."

Barbara Henry runs a food outreach ministry. She works six days a week. It's 28 degrees on a Tuesday morning outside the Second Harvest of the Big Bend. And she's preparing to load a U-Haul with more than 200 boxes of frozen chicken, ten cases of water, bread and crackers.

It used to be that Henry only saw about fifty to a hundred people when they distributed the food. Now she says she sees between 200 and 250.

"And so a lot of people who really don't want to come get food. We have a few who really don't want to come and get food, but they have too, because they don't have a job. Then a lot of them, who really need it, they come rain, shine, hot and cold."

Nowadays, more people are finding themselves living in poverty, many for the first time. The federal poverty level is $22,000 a year for a family of four. According to the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy's Allen Stonecipher, there are now 2.7 million Floridians who fall into that category.

"We've lost more than 900,000 jobs over the last three years. The poverty rate has increased by 550,000 people in Florida alone over the past two years. So, while we go about our daily tasks- those of us fortunate enough to have a job and kind of make ends meet, sometimes we forget about those who are really struggling, who've had a very difficult time during this recession."

The next stop is at a storage center, where Henry has a unit. It's a space big enough to fit three mid-sized cars and it's full of refrigerators, freezers and shelves stocked with canned foods. More than 200 brown paper bags full of groceries line the floor. As a second U-Haul truck pulls up to be loaded, Kirk Dullivan walks up. He runs a small auto repair shop at the storage center and makes about $800 a month. He gets two bags of groceries.

"I've seen them around here for like a year, but I didn't know they would help you with food. They've been a great help in my life. They've given me cheese, different meat, milk and stuff, vegetables - everything, really, and it's been a big help with the economy like it is, and I thank God for them."

He says he's grateful for what he gets from Henry's food mission. But when I ask him why he doesn't use the state's programs for assistance, he shakes his head.

"I actually didn't really pursue it. But it's really been a help to have them invest in me like this and help me with food and stuff like that."

Since we spoke, Dullivan's shop has closed. Tom Pierce is with the Department of Children and Families. He heads the Office on Homelessness.

"And the hard part is getting to the point where you recognize that you really can get the help you need to get you through this in order to get through this time," he said. "You may not have to stay at that food pantry a year from now, depending on your conditions. You have resources out there that you can rely on. And that's a real obstacle for those people who, are for the first time in their lives, are really down and out, and facing some really difficult choices."

DCF started seeing an increase of people using Medicaid, and temporary cash and food assistance programs back in April 2007. Today, there are over three million Floridians using those services, including 850,000 children who now live in poverty.

"We have the right to refuse service to anyone, and we will, if our staff our volunteers are subject to physical abuse or intimidated in any way."

One of Henry's volunteers is talking with a group of about 150 - people as the U-Haul trucks arrive at the distribution point. It's an old factory store between a gas station and a middle school. Some of the people waiting on the truck are unemployed. Some are dressed for work. There are elderly and even parents with small children.

"The food is here. In America, no one should go hungry because there's so much food. And if I have to get out my bed at 5:30 in the morning to go pick it up to keep it from being thrown out, I don't mind. I've been doing it for years, and I love it. When I see people eating out the trash can, and I have seen them eating out of the trashcan, I cry. Because that shouldn't happen."

Barbara Henry's food outreach ministry isn't the only one to see an increased demand for services. The Second Harvest of Florida, Meals on Wheels, as well as community outreach agencies are also seeing the same trends.