‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere’

By Phillip Mansfield | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Roberta Ballard was fighting back tears.

“You would think that my job would’ve compensated me after being there for so long, but no,” Ballard said.

This was early on a Tuesday morning in March. I drove to Hastings, Florida’s Potato Capital, leaving the busy downtown streets and beaches of St. Augustine behind. It was surprisingly rural and beautiful when the sun rose over open fields with occasional farmhouses, horses and cows.

I arrived at the Harris Community Center in Hastings and was greeted at the front door by a homeless man waiting to apply for food stamps. I gave him a banana and a doughnut and headed inside to the center’s conference room to meet Ballard and John Butts to discuss how the recession has affected them.

Butts and Ballard met in New York City 24 years ago, they have a 3 year-old son named Jonathan Butts, they are an african-american middle-class family and the economy has greatly impacted their lives.

Butts told their story with disappointment but also with hope.

“Roberta has been working on her job with the Department of Justice for 23 years. She’s always had the career, and I would get electrician jobs wherever we landed,” said Butts.

“We had the chance to move from New York, with a transfer from her job, to Miami, and we’ve been down there for the past 12 years,” he said.

With that, the family had made things work well for years. Unfortunately, they suffered an unexpected blow that changed everything.

“Just recently, we got another transfer through her job. They moved us up here to Hastings in November. Less than a month later she was laid off from her job, and that was the beginning of our economic downfall,” Butts said.

Ballard and Butts are one of many families who have stumbled this past year as the unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, hovers around 8.1 percent, with Florida slightly higher at 9.4 percent. The United States poverty rate by household income is currently at 12.5 percent, and so is Florida’s. These numbers have nearly doubled since last year. Ballard knows all too well that this is true.

“I was in law enforcement, I worked in communications as a technical information specialist,” Ballard said, “I was making $60,000 a year, I was doing good, you know? I’ve been there my whole life. I’m just gonna wait it out and maybe they’ll call me back.”

It has been more than just a lost job. The government has a contract with Ballard to assist in the sale of her Miami house and to help purchase a house in Hastings. Ballard was laid off before the assistance was provided and now Ballard and Butts are stuck with two homes they cannot afford.

“Do we go under and try and sue them?” Butts said. “Do we wait patiently?”

Ballard is under contract for a whole year, meaning that she couldn’t leave or the government would take back everything that they bought.

“Now how does the contract work? They are supposed to be obligated to follow through on helping us sell the house in Miami but we’re not working so we don’t know what they’re going to do. They’re the government so we can’t tell them what to do,” Butts said.

Tom Crawford of the St. Johns County Housing Finance Authority and St. Johns County Redevelopment Agency said that, “Foreclosure is a major problem right now in our area. St. Johns County is ranked in Florida as one of the areas of concern due to the economy. What we’ve seen in St. Johns County in the last few months are people who are already in a house, then because of either a loss of a job or because of the structure of the mortgage that they had, they’re in these mortgages where suddenly the interest rates go up so they’re forced out of the house or into foreclosure.”

As a result, “We’ve created a foreclosure intervention program, we have a limited amount of funding, but we’ve helped 14 or 15 households since we started last fall. It’s not a massive thing and sadly we can’t help everybody,” Crawford said.

Since Ballard lost her job, she and Butts have been to food banks, applied for food stamps, unemployment, welfare and Medicaid.

According to Jennifer Lange, director of the ACCESS Program of the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida’s food stamp caseload began showing a response to the economic downturn in April 2007. Since then, the number of people receiving food stamps in St. Johns County has increased from 4,833 to 8,608, a 78 percent increase. Statewide, the increase averaged 55 percent for the same period. The highest percentage increase in Florida is in Lee County, where participation went up by 150 percent.

Similar economic indicators have been seen in other nutrition assistance programs in Florida according to information provided by Deb Stecklein, director of program services for the Office of Food and Nutrition Management at the Florida Department of Education. The number of children eligible for free and reduced price meals in the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs increased from 2007 to 2008. The number of participants seeking food assistance from food banks through the Emergency Food Assistance Program has also risen.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act contains provisions to assist those in need. Starting on April 1, 2009 the level of food stamp benefits to participants will be increased by $20 billion over the next five years. An additional $100 million is to be provided this year for the purchase of TEFAP commodities for distribution to food banks and other eligible facilities.

It remains to be seen exactly how these provisions of the ARRA will impact Ballard and Butts, or others in similar situations.

My conversations with Ballard and Butts led me to further research on food banks and to interview Phil King, the case manager at the St. Francis House in St. Augustine. As I walked in, an older homeless woman looked at me and said to her peers, “Oh, my God! Look how young he is! Guys, there’s another young one!”

The shelter was getting ready for the lunch time rush, the food was ready to be served and people were ready to eat. King found a few minutes in his busy day to give me a guided tour of the two-story shelter. The bottom floor houses King’s office, showers, a laundry room, a kitchen and the dining room. Upstairs has a thin hallway where bunk beds line the chipped white and green painted walls as well as several individual rooms. There are 22 male beds with a separate building in town for women.

There are about 1,200 homeless people in St. John’s County, and the St. Francis House is the only homeless shelter.

“We get a lot of food donated from the Publix stores in town. They give us their day old bread and milk, stuff like that,” King said. “We also provide I.D. cards for people, healthcare and a mail service for people who don’t have anywhere else to get it sent to. There are a lot of people with mental illnesses and alcoholism that have always come here, but the economy has added a lot to it,” he said.

King also told me that construction workers and truck drivers who were able to find work a year ago, have been hurting for work and frequenting the shelter more often.

Ballard and Butts’s visits to the food bank were much different than mine.

“I mean it’s hard, but we weren’t too proud to ask for help. I thought we would get assistance right away, but we didn’t, so that’s what hurt me,” Ballard said. “I know people on public assistance, and they make it look like it’s a piece of cake but it’s not.”

“Pride, that’s something that is built up in you over the years. We’re proud, but I do a lot of volunteer work so I’ve never seen myself above anybody else,” Butts said. “I have people in my family that live in public housing, get food stamps, do dope and are basically messed up. I know people that are down and are family, you can’t think you’re better than your family.”

When you haven’t had to ask for help before, knowing where to go might be the hardest part.

“Even when you go and ask for the help, you don’t know if you’re asking too much or what is obligated to you. I hate to say obligated, but you pay your taxes for so many years you’d think that they’d tell you it was going to be okay,” Butts said.

Food stamps have been one form of assistance Ballard and Butts have taken advantage of since things turned for the worse. However, the Harris Community Center in Hastings has been Ballard and Butts’s main source of help. They call the employees their little angels who they almost never found, and stumbled upon one day before times were tough.

“Roberta was still working and the job had paid for us to come up on a trip to scout for housing,” Butts said. “At that time we were looking for some place to stay and we practically found Hastings by mistake. You know how you watch the TV commercials where they say, ‘Buy houses just by paying your taxes?’ That’s what we wanted to do. We were coming down State Road 207 and we saw the sign that said, Tax Collectors Office, so we pulled in there to see if we could find some properties,” he said.

That is when they met Loretta Smith of the Harris Community Center. Smith helped the couple find a home right before Ballard was laid off, right before they would’ve been homeless and lost everything.

“Ms. Loretta is like a little angel,” Butts said. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be here, not in this town. Who knows where we would have been.”

Smith also helped Ballard and Butts give Jonathan toys for Christmas. Ballard was hospitalized on Christmas night this year, but with the help of Smith and Toys for Tots, Jonathan received a belated Christmas celebration with his parents.

“He got some trucks, a train set, hot wheel cars and a lot of other stuff,” Ballard said, “It made me cry I was so happy.”

After living in New York and Miami for many years, Ballard and Butts were ready for the change of pace Hastings would provide.

“Moving here, for me, was a dream come true,” Butts said. “I had always dreamed about living in the country, off a dirt road where you see all the cows and rabbits. I’ve always wished I could live in a place like this,” he said.

After their dream of a slower paced life in a slower paced setting came true, the recession shattered it.

“It seemed like a dream come true, and then it’s just snatched away from you. Which was really the hardest part for me. We sacrificed so much to move up here, and this happened,” Butts said.

But because of their love for their son, the new town and its people, Ballard and Butts refuse to give up.

“I think it would’ve been even more difficult if it wasn’t for my son. I know I have to get up and do something for him,” Butts said. “The town is another thing making me not want to give up. We like it here, we like the people, we like the quietness and how there is only one stoplight in the whole town,” he said.

When times are tough, the best often comes out in people. Ballard and Butts are examples of this. Even though they have lost nearly everything, they are optimistic.

“I’m angry that my job moved me somewhere where I had no friends or family, and then they just took the job away from me,” Ballard said. “But I like it here, the people are really nice, so we’re just trying to make the best of it.”

“It is getting better, we’ve been trying to keep it between us, and work it out together,” Ballard continued. “We’re from New York. They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.”

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