Report: 46 percent of Keys households struggling

Keys residents know that getting by economically in Monroe County can be a struggle. An updated report confirms it.

Wednesday, the United Way of Florida released its annual ALICE report, which documents how households are doing financially. In the Keys, many are not doing well, the report’s Monroe County section outlines.

ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It measures “households that earn more than the federal poverty level but less than the cost of living for the county” and median household income against a monthly household budget.

It says the federal poverty level is a single adult earning $11,770 annually and a family of four earning $24,250, and that Monroe’s median household income is $61,020. The state average is $49,426 (median income is the mid-point, meaning households fall equally above or below that number) but that’s skewed here because of the local high cost of living.

Using all of that, the report says 46 percent of households out of a total of 31,391 households Keyswide are barely making ends meet, struggling to pay even the most basic monthly costs of living. And “the bare-minimum household survival budget does not include any savings, leaving a household vulnerable to unexpected expenses” such as medical emergencies.

It’s not news to Nira Tocco, board president of the Coldwell Banker Schmitt Charitable Foundation, which provides emergency financial help to Keys residents who qualify; or Sheryl Graham, director of Monroe County Social Services.

“We try to bridge a gap,” Tocco said. “When you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you don’t have a paycheck for two or three weeks, it’s impossible to regroup. So the people we assist will have light at the end of the tunnel.”

“They need to let us know what they need, what their situation is and we take it from there,” Graham said. “It’s a holistic approach. If someone comes in saying their lights will be shut off ... we don’t just look at the immediate problem, we’ll look at the underlying problem” and do referrals. “It may not be just one little thing they need. Maybe we can help them with several things.”

“We’re also making sure people have a [longer-term] get-well plan ... to make sure the state and federal dollars, and the taxpayer dollars, are going to good use,” she said.

In 2016, Tocco said, the Schmitt foundation gifted $79,014 to 54 individuals and organizations, covering everything from rent to utilities to grocery cards to dental braces.

In December, she said, the foundation was approached by a Middle Keys man who didn’t have money to pay for cremating or burying his deceased son. The foundation provided $544 and “the rest was from a private person. I have a feeling this was a fairly young guy who was from Marathon and graduated from Marathon High.”

In the Lower Keys, she said, the foundation helps a disabled person with the costs of his service dog. “We do the wellness check for the dog. The dog is trained for the kid not to hurt himself. He has disabilities where he hurts himself. So we do the wellness check and give them money for a special diet for the dog.”

Most of the foundation money, however, goes toward rent and mortgage help. In 2016, that totaled $60,836.94, Tocco said.

Monthly costs

“We really vet people pretty good,” she said. “We’re really good about getting help to people who need help. I never want people to think we throw money around willy-nilly. We’re putting a focus on seniors because not everyone here is old and wealthy.”

Applications are taken monthly and “each request for funds is reviewed and researched before it reaches the foundation board for a vote.” Money is provided directly to the service provider, “never to an applicant directly.”

The ALICE report says an average household budget in Monroe County for a single adult is $2,434 — $1,200 for housing, $165 for food, $322 for transportation, $165 for health care, $361 for taxes and $221 for “miscellaneous” for an annual total of $29,208.

For a family of two adults, one infant and and one preschooler, it’s $5,746 — $1,635 for housing, $1,200 for child care, $547 for food, $644 for transportation, $564 for taxes and $522 for “miscellaneous” for an annual total of $68,952.

Monroe County Social Services provides eligible applicants help with everything from rent to personal-care items to prescriptions to clothing. Medical assistance is a big part of what Social Services does, helping with costs of doctor services, medical supplies, ambulance rides, even prosthetics.

The department’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program helped 559 Keys households last year, paying more than $130,000 toward people’s electric bills.

For that, Graham said, “Our priority clientele are elderly and we have another group that are disabled and we have family with children, so we have three priority groups the federal government wants us to serve. That’s one of the programs the community knows us best for.”

Thirty-two families received a combined $21,000 for emergency rental help and the State Housing Initiative Partnership, administered locally by Social Services, “completely rehabilitated” 21 residential properties throughout the Keys at a cost of $565,606, Graham said.

Social Services has three offices where people can go for help: The Gato Building at 1100 Simonton St. in Key West, the county government annex on 63rd in Marathon and at the county offices at mile marker 88.8 on Plantation Key.

“While many of the programs have eligibility components that involve income limits, everyone is encouraged to apply,” Graham said.

Larry Kahn: 305-440-3218