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Gainesville Is The City Affected The Most By Poverty In Florida, Analysis Reports

A homeless man sits with signs on a downtown sidewalk. (Brooke Saban/WUFT News)
A homeless man sits with signs on a downtown sidewalk. (Brooke Saban/WUFT News)

A Spanish teacher at Oak Hall School in Gainesville, Krystal Serrano along with her husband Carlos earn just enough money to make ends meet and afford childcare for their 15-month-old daughter Luna.

Considering how single parents or households with only a single income source must struggle to pay for childcare, Krystal Serrano said, “I don’t know how anyone could do it.”

A recent article on 247wallst.com found that Gainesville has the highest poverty rate – 30% – in Florida. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the article compiled data for each state such as concentrated poverty rates, reliance on government-assisted programs and unemployment.

For Charles Harris, this news doesn’t come as a surprise. Harris is CEO of Central Florida Community Action Agency, a community-based organization aiming to reduce poverty and help low-income residents. He thinks more needs to be done in order to address the issue.

“In our community, the need is so great that one agency alone cannot solve this problem,” he said.

The Census Bureau reports that approximately 36,403 residents in Gainesville are determined to be below the poverty level. That’s about one in three people.

Ashley Edwards, chief of the bureau’s poverty statistics branch, said poverty is determined at the family level, based on size and composition. In 2018, Edwards said, the annual poverty threshold for a family of four in Gainesville was $25,465. The median salary for a local resident: $34,226.

City officials are aware of the poverty rate in Gainesville.

“We do have poverty in our community, and we are taking steps to address it,” City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said.

One of those steps, Hayes-Santos said, is a “comprehensive housing action plan” that focuses on making more affordable housing available for low-income individuals.

The city commission hopes to have the plan ready by spring 2020, he said.

Other potential measures include an energy-efficiency update for local utilities, which Hayes-Santos said would help lower utility bills for residents.

City Commissioner Helen Warren said the poverty rate not only affects households, but education, too. The commission recently voted 4-3 to increase property taxes by about half a mill starting in October, and Warren said the money will go toward a plan to help address the educational disparity in the city.

“The money that comes in will be put into an area of the community that needs to be lifted,” she said.

Commissioner David Arreola said a transformation is needed to change the status quo.

“It’s not necessarily a program or a policy that is going to address it,” Arreola said. “Sometimes it really just comes down to people needing to recognize what this means for our community.”

Mona Gil de Gibaja, president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida, said poverty in Gainesville is a multi-faceted problem.

“It’s not just one issue,” Gil de Gibaja said. “It’s so many different things that households are struggling with.”

The ALICE report – a United Way survey used to gather information on “asset limited, income constrained, employed” communities – cites market instability, health inequity and the overall changing of the American household as contributing factors to poverty. The report said poverty results from an individual or household not earning enough money to afford basic necessities: housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care, technology, taxes and miscellaneous.

ALICE also uses “household survival budget” to determine the bare-minimum wage needed to support these minimal needs. For the state, that’s $27.58 an hour for a family of four.

In Alachua County, it’s $28.18 an hour, which is over $56,000 a year.

Gil de Gibaja said the United Way’s emergency assistance line, 211, receives between 800 to 1,200 calls a day, with most requesting housing or utility assistance, or transportation or food.

She said the agency cannot keep up with the demand.

“When people call and they’re told, ‘We’re out of assistance, there’s no more assistance,’ it’s frustrating and it’s depressing,” she said.

Other organizations are also aiding in the fight against poverty in north central Florida.

Laurie Porter, development coordinator of the Catholic Charities Bureau of Gainesville, said her team focuses on feeding the hungry. One of every four families in the area struggles with food insecurity, Porter said. In 2018, her team distributed 10,800 pounds of food a month and served approximately 75-100 people a day through their food pantry, she said.

Gil de Gibaja said the problem will continue to worsen as the cost of living increases.

“As the cost of housing, healthcare, childcare continue to go up,” she said, “we’ll have more people who are financially strapped – and it’s not doable anymore.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this story stated the October property tax increase as half a cent. The increase is actually proposed at half a mill. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property.

Melissa is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org or calling 352-392-6397.