When you tell people you live in paradise, they do not expect hunger and homelessness to be part of the picture; and, the truth be told, neither do we. Much time and money has gone into creating the many versions of picture postcards sent to the unfortunate not similarly blessed to call Palm Beach County (PBC) their home. We cannot help but be a little smug; and, if we are especially zealous in showing off all the amenities, visitors leave with the impression life is lived here as a full time vacation. Few can resist such a possibility. Our overt enthusiasm helped woo the two out of three residents in South Florida that relocated here from somewhere else. The developers and the weather did the rest.
Big changes have accumulated at a terrifying pace, yet escaped our notice for a long time. That is because it was change hard to see all at once. PBC occupies a vast geography, an area about the size of Rhode Island. If you reside in one of twenty-nine municipalities, time, convenience and preference anchor you to its retail and social universe. We planned it that way. Abundance, seemingly without end, enabled proliferation without restraint.
The lack of restraint is catching up. The issues we could not see before have now multiplied so much they can’t be missed. The county’s population totals over 1.2 million, a people-mass big enough to manufacture its own brand of “climate change”— but it is climate change measured on a human scale, affecting lives throughout the county. There is a creeping onset of deterioration in the county’s quality of life affecting thousands of families caught up in a growing cycle of homelessness and hunger.
Florida is the foreclosure capital of the country. PBC is at the top of the Florida list. According to state sources, three million more homes are heading for foreclosure in Florida over the next three years. The FIU’s Metropolitan Center just published a policy paper and report, “House Hunters South Florida: Where Will Our Workers Live?" Every employer and elected official in the county should have it on their “must read” list. This report dispels the notion we are almost out of the woods on the housing recovery; in fact, for low and middle income families, the opposite is true.
With rent rising, wages stagnant, and transportation costs increasing, families are increasingly “cost burdened,” spending over 30% of their annual income on paying rent. The bigger the slice of income for this purpose, the closer the precipice of making a devil’s choice: Pay the rent and transportation costs, and you will not have enough to make it to the next paycheck. Families juggle the repercussions of this math by sacrificing on the fundamentals that sustain a decent standard of living. Food insecurity—hunger— is a direct consequence of having too little to cover the financial gap.
A fundamental measure of quality of life is how well we do as a community in putting food on the table and having affordable housing for those who need it. You might think that it is no contest here. Million dollar mansions and the trappings of wealth are highly conspicuous and omnipresent in the county. We grow enormous amounts of fruit and vegetables in an agricultural region producing more than a billion dollars in agricultural products annually. Nonetheless, affordable housing is in extremely short supply; and C.R.O.S. Ministries reported in 2011 that nearly 50,000 people received emergency food, nearly half of them children. The estimate today is that we need thirty-five million more pounds of food to meet the growing demand to of those facing food insecurity.
Some good things are happening. With support from area funders, churches, synagogues, community organizations and private individuals, C.R.O.S. and multiple partner agencies have united to address the growing problem of hunger. Together, they created the Palm Beach County Food Bank (PBC Food Bank). The new agency is as a home-grown, county-wide nonprofit organization with the mission to rescue, collect and distribute food to more than 100 agencies that operate daily to feed the hungry. The PBC Food Bank along with its partner agencies feeds tens of thousands of hungry children, families and senior citizens, from Boca Raton to Tequesta and west to Belle Glade and Pahokee. El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center, Temple Beth Am, and Cross Community Church are among the partners locally. And affordable housing? Community leaders know what needs to be done; but we have not yet found the public will to do it.