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Community needs assessment finds many families struggling

STORY BY MARY SCHENKEL (Week of July 30, 2020)

A year-long assessment of human need in Indian River County has found a huge gap between family income and the cost of living for many families, and concluded that the cost of daycare during the pandemic is a time bomb that could tip some families into homelessness.

The assessment also found that many older residents, especially women, are living in or near poverty, often in squalid, substandard housing.

It was in June last year that several Indian River County funding organizations, along with government and community leaders, began compiling a comprehensive Indian River County Community Needs Assessment – the first of its kind since 2008.

The purpose was to identify unmet needs and community strengths in five focus areas: services for children, economic opportunity and employment, health, housing and seniors. The report was completed in June 2020 and, while the data collected was primarily pre-pandemic, it highlights problem areas likely to worsen due to the pandemic.

“COVID has accelerated the need and increased the volume of people that are in need right now,” says Jeff Pickering, Indian River Community Foundation president/CEO, who envisions updates to the report as needed. 

“The study hadn’t been done in more than a decade. And so, we were not only doing this study at a point in time for last year, but we were looking back at multiple years’ worth of data and information. So we did get a bit of a longitudinal perspective on trends that were improving and, unfortunately, on some problematic trends that have been persistent and not getting much better.” 

Having a decade of data, says Pickering, enabled the study group to look at years side by side, which in turn helped to better identify statistical trends and anomalies. That said, he believes it would be beneficial to do assessments more frequently. 

“To me it’s about momentum. Being able to take a look at it in this fashion gives us the ability to put some energy toward some of these things that are working well and really dig in on the things that aren’t.” 

The United Way, with assistance from the Community Foundation and the John’s Island Community Service League, has already raised $1.5 million for the United Way COVID-19 Fund for emergency relief, spending much of it on rental assistance and food. 

“But the big, blow-a-hole-in-this-whole-thing, that I think has caught the world by surprise, is the cost of affordable child care and the availability of it, so that people can get back to work,” says Pickering. “Two months of childcare, which is very expensive, could mean the difference between somebody maintaining their rent or getting evicted, once that [eviction] prohibition is lifted.”

The report indicates that while the cost of living for a family of four in this county is $63,000, the average household income is $43,000. 

“If you look at that gap, much of that comes from the high cost of childcare and housing,” says Pickering. 

Even pre-pandemic, this report and the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed) Report show that half of county residents live in poverty or one paycheck away.  Pickering says that while he expected seasonal workers would be in that population, he was surprised to see teachers and other professionals included.

“That’s just a huge number of people that are barely making it. You think about not just the practical things that result when somebody is in jeopardy of losing their housing or not making a bill payment, but the emotional stress and psychological stress,” says Pickering, adding that it can create a toxic environment for children.

Another surprise was the high level of low-income seniors, 75 percent of whom are women, living alone, often in substandard housing. Additionally, the rate of risky behaviors such as smoking and binge drinking in that group is double the state average.

“I’ve gone on a couple of ride-alongs with Meals on Wheels and it is shocking the squalor these people are living in,” says Pickering. “And the social isolation that goes along with that creates a fairly significant recipe for adverse health incidents.” 

He cites the St. Francis Manor housing model and Meals on Wheels as excellent examples of programs that work, but both have huge wait lists. 

“They’re proven concepts and solutions that are serving a finite population, only because that’s as many as they can serve,” says Pickering. “We have solutions that work; we just haven’t had the ability to scale them up yet.”  

Another surprising challenge uncovered by the assessment is the high rate of tobacco use and vaping by teens. With one in four teens an active user, that number too is much higher than the state average. 

The section on health indicates that while the uninsured have decent access to medical care, the high costs associated with it, including prescriptions, specialty care, dental care and mental health care, have an adverse effect on low-income residents.

Regarding education, the past five years have shown improvements in kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading skills, much of it the result of philanthropic efforts.

“We moved the needle to about 60 percent who are reading on grade level, but there’s still 40 percent who aren’t,” says Pickering. “There’s going to have to be a shift in public dollars if we want to see this substantially improve. Philanthropy can only do so much.”