LAKELAND – A bolt of lightning did more than trigger a house fire.
Damage caused by fire and smoke in the aftermath of an Aug. 23 storm forced Geraldine Smith, 63, and her partner, Fred Humphrey, 55, into homelessness. Their tiny, wood-frame home, dating to 1952, already was in shambles. No insurance company would touch it, the couple said.
If not for monetary assistance from the Red Cross and relatives, the couple said they would be on the streets. Instead, they spent the better part of a week at a Howard Johnson motel, worrying about the future. They said their home was paid for, but it’s not worth repairing.
Now they face finding an affordable alternative, but Polk County’s dearth of low-income housing means their options are slim. Their only vehicle is broken down and, according to Humphrey, beyond repair, adding to his woes.
“The stress that I have been under, my mind is about to shut down,” he said.
Their predicament isn’t unique in a predominantly rural county like Polk, home to some 20,000 to 30,000 people 55 and older who are living in poverty or close to it, according to U.S. Census figures. For many, a single mishap can be calamitous in a county stretched thin for resources.
A lack of affordable housing and mass transportation tends to isolate many of Polk’s poorer seniors, experts say, leaving them to rely on the kindness of family, neighbors, church and a network of nonprofits.
But that safety net doesn’t catch everyone in need, especially in East Polk, where the elder population is spread far and wide and social services are few.
Many, like Smith and Humphrey, are ill equipped to navigate a system that seems to work best for those who are astute and well-connected. Even the savviest of seniors down on their luck run into roadblocks for some of their most basic needs in a county where social service agencies are overwhelmed.
Polk and surrounding counties are a powerful draw for retirees seeking a carefree, affordable lifestyle, but the reality is that many end up single, alone and scraping by on small, fixed incomes, said Steve Bissonnette, president and CEO of Volunteers in Service to the Elderly.
VISTE once assisted people ages 60 and older, but an increase in the numbers of seniors moving into the county, combined with increasing longevity, forced the Lakeland agency to rethink how best to serve the most people without stretching itself too thin.
Today, VISTE targets only the frail elderly, ages 70 and older – nearly 4,000 people — in Lakeland, Bartow, Mulberry and Fort Meade. It provides food, hot meals, transportation and help with light, household chores.
The typical client is a widower in her 80s. “We’re talking monthly incomes of $900 to $1,100 total,” Bissonnette said. When confronted with a sudden, unexpected expense, he said, many are forced to choose between paying rent and utilities, and keeping food on the table.
Smith and Humphrey are, by strict definition, living above the federal poverty line of $15,930 for a two-person household. Their combined annual income is closer to $24,000, they said. But both are riddled with infirmities. Smith, a former bus driver for a day-labor company, receives a monthly Social Security disability benefit of $1,000 for vision problems, COPD and other maladies.
Humphrey, who works in maintenance at a utility trailer company near Polk City, said he has diabetes and has missed a lot of work in recent months. The couple said their out-of-pocket medical expenses take a toll on their income.
Stuck without a car or a thriving mass transit system, Humphrey relies on co-workers for getting to and from work. It’s a problem faced by many of Polk’s poor, but it’s especially hard on seniors, whether still in the workforce, or dealing with ill health, Bissonnette said.
He and other advocates for the elderly are dismayed about voters’ rejection in November of the My Ride/My Road sales tax referendum that would have created a countywide bus system and expanded services in Lakeland and other parts of the county.
Instead, bus service has been reduced through route changes and consolidations.
“A lot of us were supporting that (referendum),” Bissonnette said. “It’s just not a popular thing. But in a rural area, the impact is more pronounced.”
Despite statistics showing that people are living longer, many in their 50s and 60s are beset with failing health and other factors causing premature aging, which has given rise to agencies like ElderPoint Ministries of Lakeland.
“You can’t identify anyone by a number, it’s a mindset,” said Jane Hammond, the agency’s founder.
ElderPoint operates eight mobile feeding sites scattered around West Polk that target people ages 55 and older. The agency also provides transportation for people in wheelchairs. A priority is to help feed those who don’t qualify for food stamps, or receive very little in government assistance.
ElderPoint, VISTE, Meals on Wheels and other low-cost dining options for seniors, are only part of the solution, Hammond said. She hopes to foster a community dialogue that will help seniors gain self-sufficiency. Those ideas include creating a food cooperative, making micro-loans to foster private, affordable transportation services.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, Hammond’s agency provided 4,164 rides. VISTE’s volunteers provided 11,500 trips for seniors.
Agencies providing help with food and transportation can’t reach everyone in need, however, so many seniors fall through the cracks. Another concern is the lack of affordable housing in larger cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, where social services are concentrated.
To keep a roof over their heads on a tight, fixed budget, many seniors have no choice but to live in mobile home communities that are scattered in remote regions of the county, with little access to services, Bissonnette said.
“It’s not unique to Polk, but it is a problem,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges most of our clients face is isolation.”
The Lakeland Housing Authority is working on adding to its existing stock of affordable rental units for seniors of low to moderate incomes. Currently the agency manages 100 units in Bartow, and 115 in Lakeland.
“We have a waiting list for all of the sites with over 100 families waiting, and we are receiving an average of three to five applications per month,” Ben Stevenson, LHA’s executive director, said in an email.
LHA is preparing to develop another 48 apartments for people ages 55 and older, he said. The project called Micro-Cottages at Williamstown consists of 24 duplexes that will be built on three acres at 1450 Kennedy Blvd. in Lakeland, just north of Lakeland Square mall.
But it isn’t enough to meet the growing demand for affordable senior housing, Stevenson said. “Polk County needs to increase its low-income housing units by 60 percent to accommodate every low income and/or homeless family, regardless of age. I will assume the elderly population has the same need.”
Humphrey and Smith are thankful for the help they’ve received, but the uncertainty of what lies ahead has them fearing the worst. They said their phone calls to numerous nonprofits seeking some financial assistance with moving expenses, not to mention help in finding affordable space, have been fruitless.
“They’re telling us we may have to go to the Talbot House (homeless shelter),” Smith said.
“I’m not going there, not with drug addicts,” her partner, Humphrey, replied. “But I don’t have any options right now. I don’t know where to go, and I have no way to get there.”