Florida Today
By: Isadora Rangel

Cynthia Watkins and her three daughters slept in her 2007 Mitsubishi Galant for nearly two months: Watkins curled up in the driver’s seat, her 12-year-old in the passenger’s seat and her 14 and 18 year olds huddled in the back.

Watkins ‘ journey into homelessness can be hard to understand for those on the outside and even she was caught off guard. She’s not a drug addict. She worked part-time at the Kennedy Space Center when she became homeless.

She has had struggles in life, including a three-and-a-half-year prison stint in the 1990s for selling drugs. That, she said, taught her to steer away from doing anything illegal to provide for her family. But more recently, Watkins seemed to be doing everything right to provide for her family as a single parent.

The 43-year-old used a federal Section 8 housing voucher to pay for a four-bedroom house in Titusville, but couldn’t afford to live there anymore when her landlord raised her rent from $800 to about $1,100.

The problem

Watkins’ story is not uncommon.

Rising home values are why many people end up homeless in Brevard County, according to the heads of several nonprofits involved with homelessness. Fewer people can afford to buy homes, which means demand and price for rentals has been climbing and will continue to do so.

Rents in Melbourne, for example, have increased 10 percent since last year and faster than cities such as Tampa, Miami and Orlando for a $1,180 median rent for a two-bedroom apartment and $930 for one bedroom, according to ApartmentList.com. In Palm Bay, Brevard’s largest city, median rents have remained about the same as last year: $810 for one bedroom and $1,020 for two bedrooms.

These numbers illustrate the problem:

  • More than 50 percent of Brevard County residents spend more than the recommended share of their income, 30 percent, on rent, according to a 2015 United Way report.
  • Twelve percent — about 27,000 — of the county’s households fall below the federal poverty level, which is $24,600 for a family of four, or roughly $1,660 per month, according to the report. Renting a two-bedroom apartment at the median price in Palm Bay would eat up about 60 percent of their income.
  • Another 22 percent are above the poverty level but earn less than the basic cost of living in Brevard County, which United Way estimates is $40,000 for a four-person family.

Watkins and others who are or were homeless told me their experience changed how they view the issue. They aren’t your stereotypical bums who become a nuisance for businesses and governments. People like Watkins are hidden from us: They are living in cars, tents, sleeping on other people’s couches, hotels and shelters.

The problem is expected to get worse as Florida experiences what’s considered its most acute affordable housing crisis in decades. The state has the third-largest homeless population in the country, according to the Florida Housing Coalition.

When Watkins, a Titusville native, got the notice her landlord would raise her rent she tried to move to Orlando, where her housing voucher would be worth more. But she couldn’t find a place that was affordable and available. Her move-out date came around and she found herself sleeping in her car.

Living in a car

Two of the windows of her Mitsubishi Galant didn’t roll up so at night she would cover them with a blanket to avoid mosquitoes. She and her daughters showered at the Pilot Travel Center on State Road 520, the Central Brevard Sharing Center, a food pantry in Cocoa, or at her niece’s house. The Brevard County School District gave them gas cards and Publix gift cards, and they kept food in a cooler in the trunk.

The stress of their situation was such that Watkins couldn’t eat and lost about 15 pounds. Her 12-year-old, who’s been diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, wouldn’t leave the car unless it was for school. Her 14-year-old would throw up and have cramps. Watkins quit her job at the Kennedy Space Center because driving to work became cumbersome as her car became their home.

Beating homelessness

I’m sure some will read Watkins’ story and question her decision to try to move to Orlando or her life choices in general. But what struck me was how quickly Watkins’ life changed despite her efforts to provide for her daughters, and how many of our neighbors are one unexpected expense away from being homeless. Nearly half of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $400 emergency, according to a May report by the Federal Reserve.

Watkins eventually transferred her housing voucher back to Brevard County and since late September has lived in transitional housing provided by Housing for Homeless. She pays $44 per month for a two-bedroom apartment in Titusville, plus electricity, and can stay there for a year with the possibility of an extension. She found a temporary job at Target during the holidays and earns $11.50 per hour. She hopes they will hire her permanently.

If not for the help of groups such as the Homeless Coalition and the 75 organizations that are part of it, more people would end up on the streets instead of in shelters or transitional housing.

For Melbourne resident Robert Grawe, that help allowed him to move out of a hotel, where he payed $300 per week after selling his mobile home and a failed attempt to find work in Tennessee. He recently found transitional housing through the faith-based charity Community of Hope. He pays $500 per month for a two-bedroom house for himself and his children, ages 5 and 6. He can stay there for up to two years.

Who’s addressing the issue

Organizations such as Community of Hope rely mostly on grants and donations. State, federal and local government dollars have dwindled in recent years.

The Legislature has been dipping into affordable housing funds to pay for other projects since at least 1992, the Miami Herald reported this month. Gov. Rick Scott is proposing to shift another $92 million next year. A bill filed ahead of the January legislative session would prohibit lawmakers from diverting such funds.

Brevard County’s grant for Family Promise of Brevard, for example, dropped from $37,000 last year to $5,270 as the commission is phasing out funding for nonprofits. The organization focuses on homeless fathers and families with males over age 12, who usually are turned away from other shelters. The county said it will give $50,000 this year to nonprofits to address homelessness, but Family Promise is the only group that focuses solely on housing for the homeless. The rest of the money will go to the Sharing Center to provide emergency food and the Salvation Army’s soup kitchen.

Homelessness costs the county almost $28 million a year in incarceration, prosecution, education, law enforcement and mostly health care costs, according to a 2016 study by Leadership Brevard

If our elected officials aren’t addressing the issue, maybe we should through volunteering and donating. The cost is ours to bear no matter what.

Isadora Rangel is FLORIDA TODAY’s public affairs and engagement editor and a member of the Editorial Board. Her columns reflect her opinion. Readers may reach her at irangel@floridatoday.com, by phone at 321-242-3631 or at facebook.com/IsadoraRangelReporter.

Article last accessed here on November 27, 2017.