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Many in our community are struggling to meet the most basic of food and nutritional needs. In July 2020, approximately four out of every 10 residents in St. Petersburg visited food pantries sourced by the St. Petersburg Free Clinic’s food bank. Last month, nearly half of the families in our community had to make the decision of whether to pay bills like water, utilities and car payments – or put food on the table.
Half of the households we have been serving through our food programs never visited a food pantry prior to Covid. Seven in 10 of those we’re serving have lost their jobs, been furloughed or lost wages because of the pandemic. The number of families with children who are visiting us has more than doubled since April.
In our Health Center, where we serve as a primary care home and dental clinic for patients who do not have health insurance and are not eligible for Medicaid or the Pinellas County Health Plan, our number of new patients since March has increased by 35 percent. People who lost their jobs because of Covid, and in turn lost their insurance, are turning to us so that their medical care, and prescriptions that help them manage chronic but not emergent illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, stay intact. While Covid is on the forefront of everyone’s minds, for our patients the loss of their blood pressure medication can spell disaster as much as a Covid diagnosis.
In our housing programs, many of the families we serve include income earners going to work every day but who just cannot make ends meet, given the high cost of housing. In addition to housing, in our Men’s Residence and Baldwin Women’s Residence our clients need a safe, supportive place to shore-up their behavioral and mental health, so they can stay free from substances for the long term. The safe, no-cost home settings we offer support financial stability and overall health by removing the significant financial stressor of affordable housing for hundreds of men, women and families each year.
The daily reality we see in our programs tracks with the data in the United Way of Florida’s annual ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Report. To be clear, the ALICE population are those who are working and are still unable to make ends meet because of rising costs and stagnant wages. Before Covid, 33 percent of Floridians were considered ALICE on top of the 13 percent of individuals classified as living in poverty. While individuals living in poverty often qualify for services like Medicaid and SNAP, which are critical to provide a safety net for those who are severely low-income, ALICE individuals are income earners, which often disqualifies them from receiving services organized along Federal Poverty Levels (FPL).
Covid has made things worse for the ALICE population, some of whom have plummeted into poverty and some of whom are hanging on because of the moratorium on evictions, unemployment payments keeping them afloat, and services like those offered by the Free Clinic filling in the gaps.
Embedded in growing inequity along income lines is the overlay of racial inequity, the ongoing impact of which is also being further highlighted by Covid. A leading factor as to why our Black neighbors are twice as likely to die from Covid as our white neighbors is discrimination. Structural discrimination during Covid does not just manifest in increased mortality rates for Black individuals, but in a variety of factors that impact work and well-being. For example, Black women are almost twice as likely as white men to say that they’ve been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours and/or pay reduced because of Covid.
This is the Free Clinic’s 50th year of operation. Serving our neighbors in need is not new to our organization, nor is need new to our community. However, Covid has highlighted the staggering reality that nearly half of St. Petersburg is just one paycheck away from financial crisis, and that our Black and brown neighbors continue to suffer under the intolerable weight of racism.
St. Petersburg Free Clinic is the unseen safety net for the unseen thousands who live among us every day with challenges many of us cannot even fathom. As a community, we can address the challenges our neighbors in need face by investing in organizations like the Free Clinic, that help make sure people don’t fall through the cracks in our systems. We must also work together to change those systems so that they shift toward equity.