United Way seeks community help for those at risk of poverty

Sarasota Herald Tribune

LAKEWOOD RANCH — “It’s expensive to be poor.”

That comment by Lars Gilberts, statewide director for the United Way of Florida’s ALICE program, may not seem to make sense to those with no financial worries.

Frm Sarasota Herald Tribune. Lars Gilberts presents ALICE data

But to families that the United Way regards as ALICE (“Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed”) it is a daily truth.

Imagine having a job but not having enough income to maintain the required balance in a checking account. You use money orders, which you may be charged for, to pay your bills. You can never have enough savings for a down payment on a home. So you remain stuck in a housing market where escalating rents exceed a typical mortgage payment.

Then you have transportation costs, which can be high if you have to commute to your Sarasota job from North Port or to another county, as well as food costs and child care expenses.

You are on “the edge of crisis,” as Gilberts would say — one major car repair or medical emergency away from falling into poverty.

On Friday, Gilberts led a discussion about the latest ALICE report with more than 100 elected officials, civic leaders, business owners and representatives of charities and faith-based organizations from Sarasota and Manatee counties. According to that report released in February:

■ Of Florida’s 7.5 million households, 14.5 percent lived in poverty as of 2015 and another 29.5 percent were above the poverty line but struggling to stay there.

■ Of Sarasota County’s 177,807 households, 8 percent lived in poverty and another 25 percent met the ALICE definition.

■ Of Manatee County’s 134,690 households, 12 percent were below the poverty level and another 31 percent were still unable to make a “survival budget.”

Vicious cycle

United Way Suncoast conducted the information session to build more awareness of the struggles of so many households in Sarasota-Manatee. Needing every dollar they earn to make necessary expenses, those families never get ahead.

“Income is what you need to get by,” Gilberts said. “Assets (such as investments and home ownership) are what you need to get ahead.”

Sandra Frank, CEO of All Faiths Food Bank, said people mistakenly think that her agency serves “just the impoverished and homeless.”

More than 90 percent of families relying on the food bank would meet the ALICE criteria, Frank said. Many of them come to the food pantry wearing uniforms and scrubs required for their jobs.

“We talk about ALICE as if it’s a real person in our organization,” Frank said.

The food bank regards the findings in the ALICE report (which has been done periodically since 2007) as “a game changer, one of the most important pieces of evidence we have to change perceptions.”

Kevin Cooper, CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, said his business organization already knew the area has issues such as the lack of affordable housing. Until the ALICE reports, “we didn’t really understand the demand profile.”

Debbie LaPinska, vice president of human resources for PGT Industries, a manufacturer of windows and doors in Venice, detailed how that employer is trying to assist its workers. The company provides an on-campus clinic for employees and their dependents “at no cost” so they can avoid urgent care clinics. It is working with the YMCA to start an on-site day care for employees’ children.

Yet even with pay raises and opportunities for a career path with higher incomes, PGT workers still have challenges, LaPinska said. Most of them have 62 percent of their income going toward housing. Half of them reside in North Port or Charlotte County, adding to the costs of their daily commutes.

Mireya Eavey, Sarasota area president of United Way Suncoast and executive director of the job-training CareerEdge Funders Collaborative, wanted participants in the forum to spread the word about the ALICE findings.

The next step will be for the local United Way to start working with all sectors of the community to establish and accomplish short-term and long-term goals for helping more families avoid falling into poverty, she said.

“This conversation is not over,” Eavey said. “It’s just starting.”