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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Poverty is Island's forbidden subject

Amid the $1 million canalfront homes and $500,000 condominiums of Anna Maria Island, amid the upscale developments and booming real estate market, amid the luxury automobiles and sleek yachts and boats that abound here, a young, divorced mother of two young children struggles to make ends meet.

She works two jobs for minimum wage plus tips, and makes less than $18,850 a year. She qualifies for food stamps and other government subsidies. And according to the federal government statistics, she's an Island resident who lives in poverty.

She lives on Anna Maria Island because it's a fairly safe place to raise her children and provides a far more stable environment than many areas of the mainland. The Island trolley makes it easy for her and her children to go places and do things. And it's a convenient and safe way for her two children to get to the Anna Maria Island Community Center.

"The Community Center is the safe haven for my kids," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. At the Center, her children participate in sports and other supervised activities instead of hanging out with the gang on the street corner, like they might be doing if she lived on the mainland.

"It's worth the sacrifice to live here because of the Center, the Island lifestyle, and the trolley," she said.

Surprisingly, she said, on an annual lease basis, monthly rent for an apartment in some areas of the Island "is about what you'd pay on the mainland in a decent area."

And she's not the only family that lives in poverty on the Island.

"Poverty is not something that's often discussed on the Island," said Pierrette Kelly, executive director of the AMICC, but a large number of the 1,200 Island children who use the facilities come from families the U.S. government says live under the poverty line.

When she goes to Manatee County Children's Services for annual funding, she has to prove that a lot of youngsters the Center accommodates live below the poverty line. County officials are often "in denial" that poverty exists on Anna Maria Island, she said.

"They think it's not possible on the Island and we have to prove that a number of kids live in poverty. We provide income statements from the parent or parents" to document funding requests.

About 70 percent of the children living below the poverty line who use the Center come from single-parent homes, Kelly noted.

In addition to providing a "safe haven" for these kids, the Center also helps families find local agencies that can help with rent payments, health care issues and utility bills.

"And we've never turned away a child because he or she couldn't pay," she added.

But poverty on the Island is not restricted to single parents and their children. "We help a lot of families on the Island and, believe it or not, some of those are senior citizens on fixed income," Kelly said. Included in those senior citizens on fixed incomes are a number of grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren, she added.

One program that many senior citizens take advantage of at the Center is SHARE Florida, which is sponsored by the Tampa United Methodist Center and the Tampa Electric Company.

SHARE participants volunteer for two hours of service at the Center each month. In return, they are able to purchase large quantities of household items at a fraction of the retail cost. Items include meat, cereal, fish, poultry, produce, pasta and other products.

One Island resident who participates in SHARE said $14 worth of goods bought through the program would total about $40 at a retail supermarket.

For those on fixed incomes, SHARE is a blessing.

Taxes go up every year on the Island, as does the cost of many other services such as electricity and telephone along with supermarket items. "But our incomes don't keep pace," said the participant, who asked not to be identified.

Another program that helps a lot of needy people on the Island is the All Island Denominations, sponsored by the six churches on Anna Maria Island (Roser Memorial Community Church, Harvey Memorial Community Church, St. Bernard Catholic Church, Episcopal Church of the Annunication, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church and Island Baptist Church).

"We provide whatever help we can when people call us," said Frank McGrath, the current president of the program.

"We have three food banks on the Island and we've been known to pay rent, electric or utility bills and even assist with getting them turned back on. We don't give money, and sometimes we can't help, but we try our best," he said.

And there are many Islanders who use the service. McGrath agreed there are Island residents who come into "financial difficulties" on occasion.

"They are mostly renters and people on fixed incomes, but we also see [needy] restaurant workers who live on the Island because it's convenient for work," he added.

But fewer and fewer people are taking advantage of the service, because more and more "poor people" are moving off the Island. "It's just getting real expensive to live here," McGrath noted.

While many people who use SHARE and All Island Denominations are renters, a few are homeowners, but the prospect of selling their home or taking a second mortgage to pay the bills is daunting.

"I couldn't get a second mortgage because my income doesn't meet the requirements," said one SHARE participant. "Besides, how could we pay a second mortgage? We could sell the house, but we'd have to leave this Island and we love it here."

It's a problem, said Holmes Beach City Commissioner Don Maloney. Because of rising real estate values, too many longtime Island residents on fixed incomes often have no choice but to sell their house to investors and move elsewhere.

Selling out and moving is something a lot of people on fixed incomes consider and will continue to think about as values and taxes continue to climb, he observed.

Figures from the 2000 census seem to confirm what Maloney believes.

While the population of Manatee County climbed nearly 30 percent between 1990 and 2000, the overall population of Anna Maria Island remained stagnant. Bradenton Beach actually declined in the number of permanent residents, dropping from 1,500 in 1990 to just over 1,100 in 10 years, according to the census figures. Holmes Beach and Anna Maria each showed less than 2 percent population growth in the decade.

Island poverty statistics
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average poverty level for a family of four is $18,850 in annual income. However, the HHS says that these are only guidelines, or "thresholds," and the poverty level varies from location to location within the United States.

Based upon the 2000 census, 18.5 percent of Anna Maria households make less than $14,999 per year; 17.1 percent of Bradenton Beach households fall below that income level and 9.4 percent of Holmes Beach households are under that figure.

In Anna Maria, 40.1 percent of all household incomes are under $35,000 annually, according to the census, while in Bradenton Beach the figure climbs to 52 percent. In Holmes Beach, 37.7 percent of all households have less than $35,000 in annual income.

The census figures also show that 109 grandparent couples on the Island are raising their grandchildren and more than half of those (69) have legal guardianship.

"These statistics help explain why it is necessary for the Center to raise funds to provide scholarships for our after-school and sports programs for those youth whose families are not able to afford the cost of these services," said Pierrette Kelly, executive director of the Anna Maria Island Community Center.

Figures from the Manatee County School District cafeteria program indicate there are some needy Islanders with school-age children.

At Anna Maria Elementary school, 43 of the school's 309 students are eligible for free lunches, while 11 students qualify for a reduced price on meals.