The Invisible Among Us
Painting by Tim Gibbons
We love our home. It is filled with our art and antiques, garnered through years of garage sales and the remains of our shop, Funky As A Monkey Bizarre. Our walls are crowded with beloved mementos from combined memories collected over fifty years from both our lives. Friends, family and visitors often call our nest an art and antique filled museum. It has been an enticement to our Airbnb visitors over the past seven past years. Now, the bedrooms once reserved for our Airbnb guests are filled with stockpiles of paper goods and cleaning supplies.
My kitchen pantry is loaded, every cupboard bursting with canned vegetables, soups, condiments, pasta, spices and King Arthur Unbleached flour, my favorite for bread making. My “Italian” cupboard has never been more full, bursting with cans of Tuturosa Italian Peeled tomatoes and Trader Joe’s Marzano tomatoes. I have a full sleeve of garlic bulbs on my counter. I can never run out of the basic ingredients for my Tomato Basil Sauce. My “Latin” cupboard is filled with black beans, red kidney beans, chilis, chili beans, salsa, refried beans and enchilada sauce. My freezer holds a hefty supply of Mission tortillas, meat, poultry, casseroles bread and cheese. We are ready for the apocalypse. We often wonder and are thankful at how fortunate we are. What more could I hope for in a Pandemic?
Our neighborhood is a Tampa tribute to lovely old bungalows on oak-lined streets. The riverside parks are a favorite place for children, dogs and their parents to frolic. On our morning walks we wave hello and trade greetings with our fellow walkers and joggers. We rub the cats and say good boy to the dogs.
One recent morning we noticed a couple we had never seen. They looked out of place, walking not for exercise, but to get to wherever they needed to go. The woman carried a small plastic grocery bag. Her partner pulled a weathered suitcase. They appeared to be deflated, dejected, defeated. They slouched to our corner and quickly disappeared on Sligh Avenue. Instantly, they were lost. They became invisible, ghosts to the world.
A neighbor lives in a one room Chapter 8 housing unit. I know when it is his laundry day. He carefully places his wet tee-shirts, towels and shorts on the fence. I wonder if he has a bed, with sheets. He has no transportation other than his feet. On his shopping day he returns with over-priced foods from 7/11 or the Dollar Store, both within walking distance to his home. I asked him if he would like us to pick up groceries for him. He declined. I could see he was embarrassed by my discovery of his plight. We all have our pride. I respected his. He escaped to his room, once again, becoming invisible.
People ask for handouts on street corners. We dig out our change or dollars and contribute to their next meal, or drink, or cigarettes. We forget them the minute the light changes. They drift from our vision into invisibility, into anonymity.
Our friend, Kelly, works tirelessly for the Children’s Board, behind the scenes in the army of those assisting the homeless. She stated, “The front line workers are the real heroes. They’re the ones on the streets, in the woods, searching for families, some with children as young as babies.” These homeless are invisible until someone discovers their plight, their poverty or until they ask for help, for hope. There is not enough of both to go around.
Kelly has a sweet heart and a strong will. She will do anything for anyone at a moment's notice. She advocates for the downtrodden, the needy. Evictions, families on the streets, break her heart. She recently admitted that the Children’s Board is “buried” in their work, attempting to find shelter for the homeless. The invisible living on the streets, in their cars, if they have one. They are unable to take a shower, enjoy a hot meal or a warm bed. Kelly and her fellow Children’s Board desire no praise, no accolades.
Dawning Family Services (dawningfamilyservices.org) finds homes for those in need through RRH, Rapid Re-Housing Assistance. They provide shelter support to ensure a family’s continued housing stability. They assist in the process of placing homeless families in temporary housing, for a day, a week, longer if possible. Anyplace is more habitable than living on the streets
The homeless is an invisible tide that goes out, comes in, part of the normal course of events in our world. With Covid 19 this tide has become a tsunami of poverty. Twelve million are unemployed and unable to find work, either through businesses closing or fewer jobs available. The restaurant and entertainment community are the hardest hit. Restaurants, movie theatres and music venues from Tampa to Las Vegas are reeling, with one operation after another shutting down and laying off thousands of employees.
The CARES Act moratorium ended in July of this year. Unemployment benefits will end on December 26. According to 60 Minutes Overtime and CBS News’ Irina Ivanova, Money Watch Reporter, CDS predicts seven million households are at risk after eviction moratoriums end on December 31. In Florida, the eviction moratorium has already ended. The CDC has estimated that 7 million household evictions represent 20 million children, women and men. This is the same number of evictions that occured over a nine-year period when the housing bubble burst. The difference today is that the number of families evicted will be in a one to two month period, not over a nine-year period.
From the Aspen Institute: “During the Covid 19 pandemic a study conducted a continuous analysis of the effect of the public health crisis and economic depression on renters and the housing market. Multiple studies have quantified the effect of COVID-19-related job loss and economic hardship on renters’ ability to pay rent during the pandemic. While methodologies differ, these analyses converge on a dire prediction: If conditions do not change, 29-43% of renter households could be at risk of eviction by the end of the year.” https://tinyurl.com/yyj93qac
The Census Bureau predictions are also frightening: eleven million will be evicted by the end of this month, unable to pay their rent or mortgages. Once an individual or family has been evicted, finding re-housing is nearly impossible. At the end of the eviction moratorium residents must pay all rent monies due in one lump sum in order to retain their homes. Most do not have $500 saved. No renters want to rent or sell their home to a victim of eviction. Due to the Coronavirus crisis fewer individuals are likely to open their homes to the homeless. It is a cycle of devastation, invisible to those not on the front lines of poverty.
The impact reaches further into society. Children who have no home have no access to education. Schoolhouse Connection, an advocacy group for homeless children, states that 420,000 fewer homeless students are enrolled in schools due to the Pandemic. Most of the children who are unable to return to school or enroll in schools due to homelessness are the youngest, between the ages of 5-8. The Schoolhouse Connection estimates that this loss of education will ripple through their lives for possibly ten years or their lifetimes. Receiving less education provides less ability to find employment in the future. These children will be impacted socially and economically, and inevitably, some will end up in the Criminal Justice system. Many will be trapped in the cycle of homelessness. Laura Tucker, a social worker employed as the Hillsborough County Public Schools homeless liaison, agrees. She states that younger kids are more vulnerable to lack of education due to homelessness.
We never do enough, Tim and I. We make contributions, we drop off canned goods. We hand loose change and dollars to those on street corners. Then, we retreat into the safety of our homes. We are not on the front lines of poverty. The Childrens’ Board, Metropolitan Ministries, Salvation Army, social services and local food banks are on the front lines. They are there for the invisible people, walking with half filled plastic bags and battered suitcases on the invisible streets of our lives.
I wasn’t going to publish the The Invisible Among Us. I like to end each Food For Thought entry with a happy thought, sharing a memory or experience from my heart. I like to end each entry neatly packaged and tied with a bow, a gift I give to my readers. This time I am giving you a dilemma with no solution. This is not a neatly packaged sweet story. I told Kelly I couldn’t publish such a miserable, depressing outlook, a tragedy with no solutions. She urged me to publish The Invisible Among Us: “We have enormous resources at the Children’s Board and no one has any solutions. But we know we make a difference in people’s lives. That’s all any of us can hope for, to make a difference. That’s what keeps us going.”
It may feel as though we are the Dutch boy holding his finger in a dike to stop the flood before the dam breaks. All we can do is attempt to stop the invisible tsunami surging on the horizon rather than moving to higher ground. We can make a difference. All we can do is try.
Below are a few agencies who would welcome your donations in the Tampa Bay area. Wherever you live it is easy to locate organizations needing assistance.
Community Food Pantry, 13115 S. Village Drive, Village Presbeterian Church, 813.963.2772
Covenant House, 4702 Transport Drive Bldg #6, 813.254.1190
Dawning Family Services, dawningfamilyservices.org
Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners Department of Children's Services: (Financial, gift cards, donations dropoff: 3191 Clay Mangum Lane, 813.264.3807, X 53146)
Kaye Prox Food Bank, 8401 W. Hillsborough, 813.884.1232
Metropolitan Ministries, Homeless Family Early Intervention Program, Metromin.org; Metro Hope Force
RescueChristmas.org, “Red Kettle Army” for donations
Salvation Army Homeless Services, 13910 N. Nebraska, 813.972.4777
School House Connection: https://www.schoolhouseconnection.org/psas-on-homelessness/)
Trinity Cafe, 2801 N. Nebraska, 813.865.4822