The Heartwarming Story of Maria: A Community Coming Together
In the vast landscape of stories that weave through our lives, there are some that stand out and touch our hearts in a special way. The story of Maria is one such tale, a testament to the power of community support, compassion, and the impact we can have on the lives of those in need.
Maria reached out for assistance during a challenging time in her life. She is currently undergoing cancer treatment and is anxiously awaiting surgery scheduled for November 8th. In a world where we’re bombarded with numerous calls for help each day, something about Maria’s situation resonated deeply with us.
Originally from Venezuela, Maria has been a U.S. citizen for nearly 30 years. Her life has been one of hard work and determination, spending over 25 years as a self-employed housekeeper. But life took an unexpected turn when her health was compromised by a cancer diagnosis, rendering her unable to continue her work. The fear of homelessness, something she had never faced before, became a stark and unsettling reality.
When Maria reached out to us, the desperation in her voice was palpable. Her story is a testament to how quickly life can change, and the fear and uncertainty that can grip even the strongest among us.
Our response to Maria’s call for help was swift and determined. Thanks to our Diversion Funds, we were able to provide her with the support she needed to catch up on her October rent. We also reached out to local providers who stepped up with tremendous generosity, committing to cover her November rent while she awaits assistance from the Florida Cancer Specialists Foundation.
But the story doesn’t end there. We didn’t just stop at financial aid. We connected Maria with various community resources that will help open doors to more substantial, long-term assistance. Every step of the way, we’ve been there for her, ensuring she receives the support she needs during this difficult chapter in her life.
Last but certainly not least, we partnered with the Homeless Coalition to secure her a spot on the housing voucher waitlist, providing Maria with a glimmer of hope and stability for the future.
Maria’s story is a testament to the strength of community support and the incredible difference it can make in the lives of individuals facing adversity. It serves as a reminder that, when we come together to help those in need, we have the power to create profound and positive change. Maria’s journey is a shining example of the impact we can have on the lives of others when we stand united in support and compassion.
Let’s continue to be a beacon of hope for those like Maria and make a positive difference in our community.
Every day, we welcome people from all walks of life — working professionals, mothers, senior citizens, and even high school students. Some of our clients have had successful careers as computer programmers or mathematics professors. While many were born and raised in Polk County, others originate from as far away as Brazil. What do they have in common?
“Why do people need Talbot House?”
They may not ask in so many words, but many of our visitors, volunteers, and supporters find themselves wondering what leads some of our clients into homelessness. After interviewing countless clients, we have arrived at five “common threads” that can cause an individual to find themselves at Talbot House.
While approximately 16 percent of Polk County residents live in poverty (US Census, 2022), that does not tell the entire story. An additional 34 percent of families are considered “asset-limited, income-constrained, employed” (or “ALICE”). ALICE households may work several jobs, but because the costs of living continue to rise they are barely able to meet the demands of daily living. This means that ALICE households are unable to save money for an emergency or invest in their future. One car accident, medical emergency, or other unexpected expense can be enough to plunge approximately half of the county’s citizens into poverty or even homelessness.
It’s expensive to live in poverty. Limited income means that families have to make tough choices about what to sacrifice, often choosing lower-quality goods and services or going without. Some rely on payday loans or credit cards to fill in the gaps; these temporary solutions come with exorbitant fees and high interest rates which plunge them further into poverty.
Poverty often feels like a cyclical trap. At Talbot House, our clients’ average hourly wage is $13.50.Solutions’ employment programs and comprehensive support help to break the cycle, offering educational and professional opportunities to earn gainful employment and begin saving money.
Chronic illnesses, comorbidities, and mental illnesses often correlate with homelessness. Nearly 17 percent of Polk County residents lack health insurance, which means that even basic preventative care may be out of their budget.
Lack of access to health care correlates to poor quality of life — obesity, infant mortality rates, and chronic disease. It also increases the demand on our local emergency departments; the average cost of an ER visit was $7,815 in 2019, when Lakeland Regional Medical Center was the busiest Emergency Department in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of access to health care on our community.
At Talbot House, the Good Samaritan Free Clinic exists to remove barriers to care by treating low-income, uninsured Polk County residents. We provide primary, dental, and mental health care for free along with prescription medications to those in need. The Clinic also facilitates STD testing and treatment, vaccinations, and educational workshops which are open to the community. In this way, we address illnesses at all stages, improve quality of life, and impact overall public health outcomes.
Unfortunately, many of our clients come to us with traumatic histories of domestic or sexual violence, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and other forms of abuse.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) are defined as specific traumas or challenges in a child’s home life such as emotional, physical, or mental abuse; substance abuse in the household; incarcerated or separated parents, or parental neglect. ACE’s are correlated to mental illness later in life. Nearly 25 percent of surveyed Polk County residents report four or more ACE’s according to Polk Vision’s 2021 report.
Some people turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, which produces its own array of problems. There were 275 drug overdose deaths in Polk County in 2020, a 39 percent increase. However, not all struggling with homelessness are addicts.
Traumatic childhoods, abusive marriages, and other unspeakable situations can cause people to live in a fight-or-flight mentality. Constantly on guard, these individuals find it hard to form trusting relationships, maintain jobs, save money, and take care of themselves. Just as abuse is not the fault of the victim, this coping mechanism is not their fault and not insurmountable. With trauma-informed care, one-on-one assistance, and the love of God, victims of abuse can find the strength to move on with their lives.
At Talbot House, we offer sober-living recovery programs structured to stabilize and empower those who seek to overcome their circumstances, address their grief, and achieve a fresh start in life. Our case managers are trained in mental health first aid and trauma-informed care. Volunteer-led Bible studies, worship nights, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings also provide clients the opportunity to grow personally and spiritually.
Talbot House is located in a food desert surrounded by food deserts; approximately 13 percent of Polk County is considered food-insecure. This is 18.3 percent greater than the national average. However, even in areas where grocery stores are available, our neighbors can struggle to provide healthy food for their families. Transportation barriers and the rising costs of groceries can lead to unhealthy choices. During the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, rising grocery prices confront families with difficult decisions almost every day. The Consumer Price Index reports a 5.3 percent increase in food prices year-over-year in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area. A lack of access to healthy food correlates to a wide range of chronic illnesses and social problems, including homelessness.
Feeding has always been at the heart of Talbot House Ministries’ work. Founded as a soup kitchen, we still serve three hot meals a day to those in need and offer a food pantry twice weekly. Last fiscal year, we served 138,096 meals and distributed 4,200 food boxes to our food-insecure neighbors. In July alone, we served an average of 452 meals per day.
We have recently began expanding our reach into other areas of Polk County, where food is even harder to access. Twice a month, Talbot House staff are visiting unsheltered encampments in Winter Haven and other rural areas, sharing food and water, providing medical and hygienic supplies, and connecting them with other services as needed. Already we have helped these individuals with identification, transportation, and are working to screen them for housing options. The long-term goal of this outreach program is to reduce unsheltered homelessness.
Lack of Affordable Housing.
Earlier this year, Lakeland was ranked the third fastest-growing “boomtown” in the U.S. in terms of population and business growth. This unprecedented expansion has put even more pressure on an already competitive housing market. While the City of Lakeland has made affordable housing development a priority, the need for affordable units grew exponentially over the past few years and remains an urgent need across Polk County.
The average monthly rent in Lakeland was $1,505 last year; average rental costs increased more than 25 percent in Lakeland from 2020-2022. Even for clients with good income and savings, obtaining housing can prove problematic. Many of our clients have a history of evictions, poor credit, criminal records, or other factors that would cause landlords to pass over their application. For these reasons, Talbot House is constantly seeking ways to expand its own affordable housing portfolio.
Through a variety of programs and collaborative partnerships, Talbot House helped 373 individuals find affordable housing last year. We own and operate a total of 46 units of affordable housing; the average rent for these units is approximately $400 a month. This year, we will increase our housing portfolio by 65 percent when our partners at Plateau Village open. Talbot House has agreed to provide supportive staff at Plateau Village to assist residents with wraparound services; we will also have the ability to refer individuals to Plateau Village for housing.
A new Diversion program launched this year offers immediate assistance to individuals and families who find themselves temporarily homeless and struggling to find housing. So far, Talbot House has used its limited pool of Diversion funding to help 60 people move into their own apartments or reunite with family, effectively ending their homelessness.
Weaving a stronger future
While any one of the five “common threads” above are enough to plunge a person into homelessness, we often find that our clients struggle with several — or all five — at once. For these people, Talbot House’s “one-stop shop” model provides them with the comprehensive support they need to overcome barriers, identify needs, and move forward.
Talbot House can’t achieve its mission alone. Every day, we depend on the generosity of our community to help us meet the great needs of our clients. Through donations, gifts of clothing and food, volunteer hours, prayer, and advocacy, you help broken lives find hope at our doors.
Please join us on Oct. 19, 2023 at the RP Funding Centerfor our annual fundraising event, where we will bring these five “common threads” to life through real client testimony and personal stories. Your presence means the world to the hundreds of men and women seeking real life change at Talbot House every day.
Ad.vo.cate: one who defends or maintains a cause or proposal; one who supports or promotes the interest of a cause or group; one who pleads the cause of another.
We each have a cause, proposal, project, group, idea, etc., that we champion-something we believe deserves our voice and support. And there are moments we are given the opportunity to advocate for our causes in spaces that hold great influence and power.
For Talbot House, the cause is homelessness and the space was Capitol Hill.
On July 19, Talbot House Ministries Executive Director Maria Cruz and Director of Programs Deborah Cozzetti represented Polk County as they participated in the 2023 National Conference on Ending Homelessness and Capitol Hill Day.
Capitol Hill Day is a national event coordinated by the National Alliance to End Homelessness where representatives across the nation are empowered to engage in federal advocacy to help end homelessness.
Below are Maria’s reflections on her time in DC.
“As I walked through the halls filled with passionate advocates, policymakers, and change-makers, I felt an overwhelming sense of purpose.”
“The atmosphere was charged with energy and determination, a collective resolve to address the challenges faced by the homeless community. It was truly humbling to be part of this gathering, surrounded by individuals who shared the same vision of a more compassionate society.”
“Throughout the conference, we had the opportunity to engage in thought-provoking discussions, attend enlightening seminars, and collaborate with like-minded individuals from diverse backgrounds.”
“The exchange of ideas and experiences strengthened my resolve to fight for the rights and well-being of the homeless population.”
“I was amazed by the wealth of knowledge and innovative solutions presented, as well as the genuine empathy that permeated every interaction.”
“As I stepped into the congressional building, I couldn’t help but reflect on the journey that led me there.”
“Advocating for the homeless had been a lifelong dream, nurtured by empathetic encounters and a deep desire to make a meaningful difference.”
“The realization that I was representing our agency before esteemed individuals, sharing my voice on behalf of the marginalized, was immensely fulfilling.”
“We spoke passionately about the urgent need for affordable housing, comprehensive support systems, increased wages for front line staff, the need for housing choice vouchers and programs aimed at empowering the homeless to rebuild their lives. The response was overwhelming.”
Delegates expressed their support, raised pertinent questions, and shared their own experiences in the field. The sense of solidarity in that room was palpable, and it reinforced my belief in the power of collective action.”