Over the last twelve months, I have had the opportunity to speak to Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, high school assemblies, corporate board meetings, churches, and anyone who would listen about poverty in Orlando. At the same time, families earning 200% of the U.S. poverty level or below are visiting Community Food and Outreach Center (CFOC) in ever increasing numbers. Over 119,000 struggling families will visit our campus this year and we’re barely scratching the surface.
Nearly 410,000 families in Orlando earn under $25,000 annually. Nationally, 1 in 45 children are homeless, but in Orlando, 1 in 17 children are homeless. 1 in 5 people in this community live in poverty.
It’s taken me this whole year of talking about these statistics to really let them sink in. In addition to my talk, I always take questions from the audience and learn a great deal in the process. People think that in some ways, this is just what is expected of tourism economy. People think that adult workers should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and find a way to make it work.
After eleven months of giving talks on poverty in my community, I was frustrated, but I didn’t understand why. One day I helped a young woman to her car with her groceries (one of our programs at CFOC is a cost share grocery). She was having some trouble with her young daughter. I’m there loading her groceries into the car, when I realize it’s not a car. It’s also a bedroom. It’s very obvious that she and her daughter are living in this car. They both dressed nice— like the mother just came from a law firm; her daughter like she had just come from a fine day care program. But they’re living in the car!
So I’m standing there and I’m feeling embarrassed because there’s a reason she didn’t want me to see what was in the car. She hustles off and leaves and I’m standing there thinking I should’ve said something. I should’ve done something. I should’ve gotten her into our crisis center and really talked to her about the opportunities we have that might be able to assist. But she was outta there and I’m standing there feeling stupid because I’m supposed to know what to do. This isn’t just somebody standing on the side of the street holding up a cardboard sign. This is somebody who clearly needs assistance from somebody, but is unwilling to ask. And as I’m standing there I’m realizing I’m feeling not just sadness, I’m feeling angry. I’m angry with myself and I’m angry that this is even happening in this community.
People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don’t have any boots to begin with.
There is a great deal of effort poured into the fight against poverty from non-profits, government, businesses, and faith institutions. We must move the needle right here in Orlando. On homelessness, on the working poor, on poverty. My organization is working to move people from poverty to self-sufficiency one at a time, and while we do it well, we can't do it all. We need help. From public officials, from business leaders, from donors, and from volunteers. If we move the needle in one of the poorest cities in America, maybe we can make an impact on poverty at a larger scale.