Family town hall forum shines through the cloud of inadequate services

Pastor James Williams of Mt. Olive AME Church believes the time is now for working together

CLEARWATER – People from across the area came to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Neighborhood Family Center in North Greenwood May 31 to share their knowledge and experiences about what happens when the services people are entitled to fall short. For The Family, Inc. sponsored the Forum, which was moderated by agency Administrator W. Ward Cox.  Pastor James Williams of Mt. Olive AME Church offered the opening prayer.

About 45 percent of those attending either receive food stamps or knows of someone who does.  About 58 percent either receive Social Security or knows of someone who does. The corresponding figure for Medicare is 55 percent, 45 percent for Disability benefits, 18 percent for subsidized housing and 9 percent for enrollees in PACE-Suncoast health care services for the elderly.

When Toyia Mays of Clearwater started receiving about $250 per month in financial aid for attending college in 2014, her Food Stamps were reduced by $170/month.  Despite working as a childcare aide at a local elementary school, this made her unable to make ends meet even after taking on an additional job as a babysitter.

Mays also faced medical bills for her sick infant and spent an additional $70/month on special formula that was required as a result of the illness.

“I tried to keep going by any means necessary,” she said, but had to drop out of school.  What’s worse, she and her child became homeless.

Fortunately, they have a home now that Mays found a full-time job in healthcare.  She can no longer afford to seek a higher education but added: “I’m at least somewhat making ends meet.”  However, the raises she earned from excelling at her job were largely cancelled out by Food Stamp cuts that lowered last September’s monthly allotment of $121 to zero as of this March.

This coincides with an $8.7 billion cut in the overall Food Stamp program over a 10 year period that began in 2014.  The U.S. Agriculture Department reports that one in every six Americans does not currently have enough to eat.

Largo resident Annette Douglas described how her daughter found it was so difficult to complete the paperwork needed to obtain Food Stamps that she no longer receives them despite being eligible.  Of course, this obstacle also keeps many others from the assistance they need and is a hidden budget cut.

Her daughter is a single parent with a full-time job and three children between 10-17 years old.  She also has custody of a troubled nephew who has been in and out of foster care, and only began receiving financial assistance after he recently turned 18. Douglas notes that “it’s been a real struggle for at least the past five or six years.”

Dr. Joseph Smiley is Dean of Social Sciences at St. Petersburg College. He explained that far too many students must rely on financial aid to stay alive just as Mays did.  Unfortunately, he said that aid is sometimes not enough for them to avoid being homeless.

“They stay in the library late at night, but it’s not to study. Every week, students from each campus ask for help. I do what I can so that they can get free books, but they still don’t have a place to stay.  How their needs are met, I don’t know,” he questioned.

He added that the stories that were shared at the Forum show how “we need to do more and avoid walking in oblivion.” Pastor Williams said that community churches and other organizations have to get together, but “if enough don’t step up immediately, we have to move with or without them.”

With the series set to resume this fall, Cox promised that For The Family would do whatever it could to help make that happen.

Dr. Smiley reiterated that so many people are affected that “it’s not a matter of you, it’s us.”  That statement is underscored by the release of more evidence about the increasing vulnerability of the middle class.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that 80 percent of Americans do not have enough savings to weather another economic downturn as seen in 2008.  Less than 1/3 of adults ages 25-34 live in their own homes.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center found that the number of middle class households has declined in every part of the country, and that median middle class income dropped by five percent from 2000-14. Among other things, that means more people may have to eventually have to rely on Food Stamps and other services.

Fortunately, more people and organizations are starting to realize the urgency involved.  As Cox put it, “Our collective moral strength can move mountains, and it’s long overdue.”

If your church or community service organization would like to get involved in organizing Family Forums when the Series resumes in Pinellas County this fall, the process is already underway.

For more information, please e-mail, call either (800) 355-6788 or (727) 443-2142, or visit

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