TAMPA, Fla. — The pictures of a booming Florida are hard to miss. The state’s population growth over the past ten years leads the nation, construction has become as much a part of the state’s landscape as its coastline and, according to the Governor’s office, the economy here is thriving.
So perhaps it’s all a bit befuddling why in a state touting a 16-month consecutive streak of unemployment below the national rate, more middle-class working families are finding themselves homeless for the first time.
Angelia Woods and her four children are among them.
“I am what you would consider homeless,” Woods described during our interview on the patio of the Tampa hotel where she and her children have called home since July 2021.
What’s more confusing is Woods has a solid, full-time job as an accountant with Florida’s Department of Transportation.
“I tell people I work for the state and they’re like, what? I say, yea I’m an accountant for the state,” she said.
When asked how an accountant for the state could find herself and her children homeless, Woods explained “because you have to pay to live so, therefore, you can’t afford to save any money to move,” Woods said.
“I pay almost $2000 per month to live here. Well, that’s all my income,” she said. “So I don’t have any money saved to put down first month, last month, security then you have to think about all the deposits for electricity, deposit for the water. I can’t afford all that,” she told Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone recently.
Woods said the pandemic forced her previous employer to shut down. She lost her job and was eventually evicted because, she said, she was paying her rent at the end of the month instead of the beginning since she was waiting for unemployment benefits.
With no job, little money, and eviction on her record, Woods and her children started hotel hopping until they found the hotel where they’re currently staying in Tampa.
By the time she got her accounting job with the state, Florida’s rental market had exploded making the numbers for her to afford a place of her own unrealistic.
“I tell me kids you work, you’re entitled to things. You take care of yourself you’re entitled to things. So I never thought i would be in a situation like this, it shocks me sometimes,” she said.
When asked why she doesn’t get assistance, Woods responded, “I don’t qualify for assistance. So you make too much money to qualify for assistance but you don’t make enough money to be able to save to get somewhere else to live,” she said. I’m in that middle area, that grey area I had a hard time seeing. All my life everything’s been black or white for me. You work you get paid, you don’t work you don’t get paid. There was no middle. now I see the middle because I’m the grey. I’m the one that’s in that shady area that no one really wants to acknowledge is there,” she explained.
Across the coast in Martin County, Owen Russell and his 17-year-old daughter just moved into a Jensen Beach church where they’ll stay for two weeks.
“Every two weeks we pack ourselves up and go to the next church,” he said. Before they church hopped, they spent months couch surfing and have spent nights in the car.
“I feels terrible, terrible. I’m a single father and I’ve raised my daughter since she was a year and a half old by myself. I’ve always been there for her and have been able to provide for her,” Russell said.
But that changed last summer when their landlord passed away. The family decided to sell the place where he was living. Russell said they had 10 days to move out.
“10 days, that was it,” he said.
Russell is a transportation provider for non-emergency patients. He describes it as a “good job.” But, with rental prices up 20-30% since last year in Martin County, Russell said his income isn’t good enough to land them in a place they can call their own. He said he’s had landlords tell him one price, then raise the price before he could move in.
The lack of affordable housing in Florida is a widely known statewide problem.
“When they say they’re building homes for middle-class families, I go to apply and I say who’s able to afford this,” Russell asked. In Martin County, some housing the county calls “workforce” housing is going for $2000- $3000, per month explains Madeleine Bozone-Greenwood, Executive Director of Family Promises of Martin County. The organization is part of a leading national non-profit dedicated to helping families who are experiencing homelessness or facing the prospects of becoming homeless.
Bozone-Greenwood calls families like the Russells and the Woods’ “families in the gap.” “I’m finding there are more families now they make too much too much to qualify for government subsidy but too little for the market rent so these are our workforce that are in the gap,” she explained.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the feds have poured hundreds of millions of pandemic relief dollars into state and local coffers to help people struggling to pay their rent or mortgage. In 2021, an additional $85 million was allocated to Florida, specifically, to help prevent homelessness.
But Bozone-Greenwood said without changing who gets priority and increasing income eligibility requirements for assistance, more families will continue to fall in the “gap.”
“We have to help families making higher incomes. These are families that even though their income isn’t as low as what the definition was, they still need the help,” she said.
Owen Russell is now weighing the option of moving across state lines into Georgia.
“There’s no place for me to live in the state that I was born. I’m a Floridian boy and there’s no place for me here,” he said.
Angelia Woods plans to stay put.
“There’s this stereotype you’re single, you have kids, you must be on welfare. Nope, I get up every day and go to my job,” she said. “I’m an accountant. I’m already working and I’m already productive.”
July will mark one year she and her kids have been in the same Tampa hotel. It’s an anniversary this mom would like nothing more than to miss.
“I don’t want anybody’s sympathy. I don’t want anyone to take care of me. I will take care of us. I just want an opportunity to get a place that’s decent, that’s affordable and that may kids don’t have to be afraid to come out and play, that’s all I want.”