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Money hungry



He leans over his wife's bed and gives her five "sugars," five quick kisses that are as much for luck as they are for comfort. He adjusts her pillows, her useless legs, gives her a back scratcher and radio, then turns the small television to a better station. Roy Rembert knows he's taking a chance leaving Gladys by herself in the room they rent in a house on Railroad Avenue, a blighted Winter Park street where skinny dogs wander between homes in need of paint and lawn care.

But the weekly rent is due, and Roy, wearing a polo shirt buttoned to the collar, stained slacks and brown dress shoes, must scrounge the $65 anywhere he can. Normally, he'd have to walk or borrow his son's bicycle, since his own bike disappeared several weeks ago. Today, Roy is lucky. A reporter's car waits outside.

Gladys Rembert has been unable to work since a 1993 car accident broke her C-5 and C-6 vertebrae, leaving her a paraplegic. She must take medications for an assortment of ailments that include bladder spasms and blood clots, medicines that cost Gladys nearly all of her monthly $600 disability paycheck. Most days she sits in bed watching a black-and-white TV or reading from the Book of Psalms. There's an orange blanket covering a window, an iron on the floor and adult diapers on a shelf in the closet. Several cockroaches scamper across the carpet and dresser. "That's nothing," Roy says, rubbing his hair. "Sometimes I have to brush them out of the bed at night and off of her. It gets to the point where you're brushing your hand over your head because you feel like they're always on you."

After she sees me studying the room, Gladys asks, "What does it look like to you? I think it's like the Twilight Zone."

Like an estimated 30 million Americans, Gladys and Roy often don't know where their next meal is coming from. Roy is afraid that if he works full-time, something will happen to Gladys while he is away. A machete he keeps underneath the air conditioner is a reminder that their room might not be in the safest of neighborhoods.

The couple does not qualify for a home health aide, they say. So the Remberts rely on themselves and on a number of Winter Park residents and businesses that provide Roy with small jobs like washing cars or emptying trash cans, for which he collects $10 or $20 for a half hour of work. Churches often provide money and food. "His situation is such that if his wife could get real help, he'd be able to work," says Dr. Jack Facundus, a member of the Remberts' private safety net. "Why is it that other people are getting help but he isn't? He's not a deadbeat. He's not looking for a handout. He's ready to work."

The Remberts are an example of the paradox contemporary Americans live in: In a time of increasing wealth, we have an increasing number of hungry and homeless. This month the U.S. economy's nine-year hot streak will break the record for growth set in the 1960s. In the past decade, 20 million jobs and 6 million new millionaires have been created while unemployment is at a 30-year low. In the greater Orlando area, the economic boom has increased the average household buying income from $19,600 in 1980 to $45,300 in 1998. Charity is at ever-increasing levels, too. The Heart of Florida United Way, as one indicator, received $19 million in 1999.

But the wealth has apparently trickled only so far, leaving health agencies with an overwhelming burden. Adjusted hourly wages for the nation's minimum-wage workers fell nearly 7 percent in the last 10 years. Thirty percent of employees earning below the poverty line have such little work stability that they've been at their jobs for less than six months. And emergency food programs report a 40 percent increase in demand for food.

The number of homeless people in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties has increased to roughly 5,300, according to a 1999 University of Central Florida report. More of a problem, since there's much more of them, are the 89,426 "precariously housed" individuals forced to live like Roy and Gladys do, sharing a home with another family.

Special-needs housing, subsidized for disabled people, is at a premium. Waiting lists are so long that many apartments, such as The Oaks in Winter Park from which the Remberts were evicted last May, have stopped taking names. "It's just not realistic to have someone fill out an application," says Karla Huff, manager of The Oaks. She still has people on her list from as far back as 1995.

Roy and Gladys were evicted because they didn't pay the $21 monthly rent for three months in the spring of 1999. Roy says he tried to pay Huff the money, but the apartment manager, he says, refused to take it.

The Remberts' claim that they were kicked out without due cause is dubious, given that they could have paid their rent through the Orange County Clerk's Office while the eviction was in the court system. And according to court documents, the Remberts were given an extra day to move out. They didn't use that, either. The Oaks' staff had to cart out their TV, VCR, bed and a bag of pennies.

Huff won't talk about the Remberts because of confidentiality agreements. "I can certainly feel their frustrations and the frustrations of those who have reached out to help them," Huff says.

Whatever the reason for their eviction, the Remberts moved from hotel to hotel before landing in the house on Railroad Avenue last November. I ask Roy whether they should have fought harder to keep their apartment at The Oaks. "I don't make excuses for myself," he says. "Most of the things that have happened to me I have no control over. That is God's work. I've done everything I could do for my wife. I've been to every place that everybody recommends to me. If somebody says I should try something new I'll do it, as long as it's legal."

On a clear, sunny morning, Roy Rembert and I drive to Mercy Ministries to see if Calvary Assembly parishioners have donated money to Gladys and him. As Rembert talks with Jim Fleming, Mercy's director, I help a Latina mother load a box of groceries into her car. It's curious that she drives a late-model Ford and that its trunk contains a large, empty water container. Is this car hers, or is it borrowed? Does she have money to pay for bottled water, but none for food?

Maybe this family -- and many people who claim to be poor -- have taken advantage of food and clothes they don't really need. It's easy to imagine that the perception of poverty has changed to the point where the poor today aren't the same as they were during the Oklahoma dust bowl years and other times of squalor. Maybe Americans are so used to a certain amount of comfort that we feel sympathy for anyone who doesn't own a television, radio or any other modern appliance now thought to be a necessity.

But according to Sandy Venner of the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University, the bar of poverty hasn't been raised; it's being lowered. Citing a Congressional Budget Office report, she says income among the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans increased by 43 percent in the past 20 years, while income among the poorest Americans dropped 9 percent.

Every president since Richard Nixon -- Republican and Democrat -- has added to the problem by cutting the programs Lyndon Johnson vowed would end poverty as we know it. Ronald Reagan cut some federal subsidies by 80 percent. And those who suffer include many who want to help themselves; half of the families looking for food have at least one member employed full-time, according to statistics compiled by the Second Harvest Food Bank.

"In a market economy, you'll always have subsidies," says Bill Newman, program director for the Center for Affordable Housing in Sanford. "You'll always have people who can't work or who may be so completely without skills and without possibilities that you'll need some sort of shelter to provide for them. That's life, and I don't think it will ever change. Some people are born with a kind of personality that is never going to prompt them to succeed at anything. ... We're going to have to figure out what to do with them. Do we house them or ignore them? How do we get them to improve on their own, which is the best approach?"

After I help the woman with her car, Rembert returns from his meeting with Jim Fleming. As we walk out the door, Fleming offers Roy two large packs of ground meat. "This has never happened before," Rembert says as we drive away. Later, an administrator at St. Charles Borromeo Church on Edgewater Drive gives Rembert $130 in cash to help pay rent over the next few weeks. (For the week, Rembert collects almost $400 cash, tax free.)

Later I wonder aloud whether having a reporter along has helped Rembert receive charity. "Probably," Rembert says. "But `Gladys and I` often receive things that other `needy` people don't."

People on the lower rungs have thousands of different tales explaining how they reached their destinations. Many of them sound vaguely similar to what the Remberts are experiencing. Somebody lost a job, somebody got a divorce, there was a drug problem or a crime committed. Then at a crucial juncture, no family or friends stepped forward to help.

It hasn't gone unnoticed that many jobs created in our burgeoning economy have been low-paying service jobs, which typically don't offer insurance or other benefits. "There's so many people living paycheck to paycheck because the pay is so low here," says First Call for Help's Jim Spurgeon, whose agency receives roughly 100 more calls per day for aid than it did just one year ago. "You're always going to have people struggling as long as you have big employers who pay dirt-cheap wages. And they're the ones who shout the loudest when they have an employee in a stressful situation."

According to the UCF report on homelessness, Orlando has the fastest-growing service economy in the U.S. Forty percent of our regional economy is comprised of jobs in child care, fast food, home health and janitorial.

"You can't have a factory close in Podunk, Texas, without having Disney or Universal come in to recruit people to Orlando," says Tom Allison, president of the Coalition for the Homeless. "They can make it by themselves on $10 an hour in Podunk, but when you bring them here, they're barely making enough to live on. They're living right on the cusp."

The Coalition has a warehouse-like building full of men for whom IPOs, SUVs and GNPs are nothing more than letters of the alphabet. Their beds are mats or sleeping bags on a concrete floor. One man sits sleeping straight up in a chair. All their belongings surround them or are stuffed into one of the blue lockers that sit underneath a shed adjacent to the building. Their bathroom smells so strongly of fermenting shit that I gag walking in the door.

Here are the faces that one typically sees when picturing the homeless. A man who mistakes me for a health worker says he used to attend the Miami Military Academy but dropped out because of a drug habit; he's looking for an efficiency apartment he can afford on his $500 disability check. Another, Rafael Gonzalez, wound up at the shelter after traveling by bus from New York City; he did some work in New York stripping in clubs and hopes for a new start here in modeling, but his last address was a prison cell, after a conviction for armed robbery. Still, he feels lucky. He's already found a girlfriend whom he plans to move in with.

Gonzalez has a friend named Pete whose options are more limited. Pete, 46, won't work in the labor pool since an injury left him with a herniated disc. "I can't risk lifting 30 pounds and winding up in a wheelchair," he says, "versus making $6.25 an hour."

On the other end of the spectrum is Heather Hendrix, a mother of three who lives in one of the Coalition's on-campus apartments. Hendrix dropped out of Winter Park High School in 1991 and spent six years living with her high-school sweetheart, who bounced from job to job. One night in the freezing cold, they were evicted from their trailer and landed at the Coalition. "I felt kind of weird because I'd never been in this kind of situation," Hendrix says.

Hendrix, her boyfriend and their two kids were able to move out within a couple of months, but when bad times hit again they returned. The couple split up, and Hendrix began living with Geniesy, with whom she had her third child. Then Geniesy lost his job as a welder and Hendrix once more found herself at the Coalition, where they've been for a year and a half.

Things are looking up for the family. Geniesy recently returned to his old welding job. Hendrix just received a raise to $6.25 as a fast-food cashier. She acquired her GED through another Coalition program and hopes to pursue a degree in nursing.

In a month and a half, the couple expects to move into an apartment of their own through a program in which the Coalition pays the first three months' rent while the couple builds up a checking account. Then if they experience lean times, they'll have savings to fall back on.

"I want to stick with this program," says Hendrix, sitting in her spacious two-bedroom apartment. "I don't want to end up in this situation again with three kids."

While Hendrix seems to be rebounding, Roy and Gladys Rembert seem stuck. Their choices don't appear to be very attractive. Gladys could go into a nursing home, but she doesn't trust the care she'll receive. "If we had put her in a home she'd be dead already," Roy says. Roy could work full-time and pay a nurse to sit with Gladys. But the couple already had aides who literally fell asleep on the job or wouldn't keep a decent work schedule. Gladys might find work at a place like Target, a company known to hire disabled persons. But Roy is afraid if she sits up too long, she'll black out.

Trying to determine what aid the Remberts are still eligible for is a difficult process. Several social workers know Gladys' case history but are unable to talk about it. Confidentiality agreements, like those doctors and lawyers have with their clients, prevent them from speaking about Roy, Gladys or any other person who has turned to public assistance.

At the same time, social workers say that a disabled person between the ages of 50 and 60 -- Gladys is 54 -- has a difficult time receiving benefits, since the policies are written to benefit people over 60. And state funding for adult community care -- transportation services, personal aides, case management and day care -- has decreased in the four counties surrounding Orlando since 1996. The 119 people on the waiting list actually outnumber the 71 people served by the program. "I've seen the waiting list, and it is very valid," says Pat Bell, of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

What do you do if you're one of the 119 people waiting? Or, as in the Remberts' case, you're not even on the list? If you're Roy Rembert, you walk around Winter Park with a handyman's license you paid $130 to obtain and an employer's letter of reference wrapped in plastic. And you try to convince businessmen like James Wayne, a real-estate broker, that you have no other options but to turn up and ask for handouts.

Roy and I have been to Wayne's office several times already, and I have had the suspicion that maybe we weren't welcome. But as we pop in one afternoon, the receptionist looks up and tells us to go into Wayne's office.

Wayne is an intense, no-nonsense man wearing a pink and blue pullover shirt on the day we visit. A book of guitar music sits on his cluttered desk. He is courteous, apologizing to Rembert several times for being blunt. But Wayne has been burned several times by people looking for handouts, and he has sworn the only contributions he will make to the poor are through his church.

He seems willing to make an exception for the Remberts because of their dire circumstances and because three years ago he himself was so broke he needed to borrow money. He asks for some confirmation that Roy and Gladys need financial aid. "I'm not going to support you and your wife," he says, "but I can be of some assistance." He isn't content with the two references Roy has scrawled on a sheet of paper.

Wayne asks pointed questions and is unashamed to tell Rembert what he thinks of the answers. Does Rembert smoke? Yes, Roy says. "Well, why should I subsidize your smoking?" Wayne asks. When Rembert says he spends only $1.29 every three days on tobacco, Wayne cuts him off: "You're talking to someone who hates smoking."

The advice he gives is to find institutional help, even if it means waiting half the day, as Roy and Gladys have done, in a line in an office. "I'm a small fish in a big pond," Wayne says. "Your problems are large. You need to go after the big fish." His advice comes in the form of a pep talk: Don't take no for an answer, be aggressive, persistent, polite but firm. The conversation ends with Wayne handing Rembert a $50 check.

As Roy and I get back into my car, I wonder if the talk has moved him. He tells me he's heard the advice before and he's followed it religiously. "I appreciate him thinking about me," Roy says. "I don't get upset, but I been down that route so many times."

Roy Rembert and I drive to a home near the mansion belonging to basketball star Horace Grant. Rembert says he has been to the house several times, and the man who owns the home has promised work.

Roy rings the bell; after a moment, a blond-haired woman answers the door. Tensing her neck and reddening with embarrassment, she says her husband is out of town and she has no work to offer. She has a gardener, the cars are washed and a workman is in the backyard.

She is neither rude nor insistent, so Roy begins to tell the tale of his wife's car accident and how the couple has fallen through the cracks. He is a decent storyteller and isn't afraid to provide the nasty details. He often tells people about having to give Gladys an enema every other day and having to "take" the waste from her body. Today, Roy limits the conversation to how he has to clean the fungus from underneath her toenails.

After listening a moment, the woman says that he can wash the outside of her windows. They agree on the $65 rent money due that day.

She also agrees to talk to me, provided she doesn't have to give her name. She doesn't want to become a target for every person who might suddenly find themselves short of cash. In fact, when she agrees to have Roy wash her windows, she tells him she doesn't want her goodwill to become "expected."

She was reluctant because she and her husband helped a man in the past who kept returning. The man repaid a sizable loan to the couple, which surprised her, but always seemed to want more handouts. She's torn between the image of the needy man and the image of the days a decade ago when she, too, barely had enough to eat. "`Roy` seems to be a kind person," she says, leaning forward. "I feel for him. What if you were in that situation and you had to knock on doors and you were turned away?"

After an hour, Roy finishes his job and returns the ladder, bucket and cleaner. As the woman hands him a check, he says, "I know this `work` wasn't worth $65, but I sure appreciate the money."

He vows to return to clean the windows he couldn't catch today. He's off to the bank to cash the check and pay his rent. And prepare for another week of life on Railroad Avenue.


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