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Some Safety Harbor residents continue to struggle in recession

SAFETY HARBOR

Martin Luther King Street stretches from busy McMullen-Booth Road almost to Tampa Bay, linking a mix of working and middle class homes to the city's industrial core.

What's happening to the jobs and wallets of people who live and work along those 1.3 miles reflects the good news, bad news nature of today's headlines. Business fortunes seem to have bottomed out. Recent weeks have seen the stock market recover from January's dive, retailers posted their strongest sales since 2007; but there's been no bounce-back for individuals, with unemployment stuck near 10 percent.

Likewise, Safety Harbor businesses feel their fortunes will improve.

But Janet Hooper, executive director of the Neighborhood Family Center, said the gains "just haven't gotten down to Main Street yet."

Nor have they gotten to some of her neighbors on M.L. King (Fourth) Street.

Donna Womack, who lives a few blocks west of the railroad tracks, moved here from Delray Beach in 2008 for a nursing administration job at a medical staffing company.

She lost her job three months ago, when the company was sold.

"It's the first time in more than 30 years I'm out of a job," said Womack, 60.

Since then, she's applied for five jobs, the only ones she could find that were right for her skill set. She landed one interview last week. It's scheduled in a couple of weeks.

Working at a hospital is not an option for her. For almost a decade, she's worked for private companies. Hospitals won't hire her because she's been out of that setting too long, she said. And she realizes hospital work is too strenuous for her.

But she must work full time, because she needs medical insurance, she said.

"I have always had health, dental and vision insurance," Womack said. "People can take a chance, but I'm not one of them."

• • •

Sometimes people are left with few options, said Hooper, of the Neighborhood Family Center.

"Do you keep insurance and not have a roof over your head?" Hooper asked. "Do you keep health insurance and not eat? Look at the choices you have to make."

The center partners with other social service groups to provide food, clothing and other support for people in Safety Harbor, Oldsmar and east Clearwater.

Last year, the center served around 9,000 people, about 3,000 more than the year before, Hooper said.

"There's a whole group of people in a new situation. They don't have the skills to navigate the system," Hooper said. "Everything they've worked for has gone down the drain."

Fred McCoy, the center's food pantry coordinator, said things have really changed over the last couple of years.

Each month, the pantry, which is run by a volunteer group called Church and Community Outreach, generally provides food for about 80 to 90 low-income families. Last year, it averaged between 200 and 250 a month, he said.

• • •

Dale Nelson came to the food pantry last Monday to get his monthly box of staples.

Nelson, who used to work at a custom cabinet shop a block away, has been out of work for almost two years. He's been coming to the pantry for about a year.

At first he felt a bit awkward. Then, he saw other people from the construction business there.

"It made it more comfortable when I ran into people I knew that were going through the same things," Nelson, 56, said.

• • •

Dusty Rhodes used to have about 180 workers at Jacobsen Homes. Now he has 80.

"I laid off people I had known since I was 17," said Rhodes, 57, who started with the company 40 years ago and worked his way up to president. "I walk through (the shop) sometimes. I miss seeing this guy over here and this guy over here."

Rhodes didn't have much choice. Production is down about 60 percent. The company, which builds manufactured and modular homes, used to average about five homes a day. Today it averages around two, he said.

Lately, business has been pretty consistent, Rhodes said. His crew has been working steady for the past nine months.

"It's looking a little better." Rhodes said. "We'll be here in 20 or 30 years, I'm sure. We'll just have less competition."

• • •

Safety Harbor Elementary School principal Bob Kalach knows more families are struggling. The number of students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program has almost doubled.

The school usually averages about 25 or 30 percent, he said. Now, 46 percent participate in the program. "We really have spiked in the last two years," he said.

• • •

Oksana Blaga's 8-year-old son, Nazar, doesn't like to go to the grocery store with her anymore. She lost her job about six months ago, and Nazar knows the family has a lot less money.

"Sometimes, he even says don't spend too much money because we will have to live on the street," said Blaga, 35, who used to wash and fold linens at a textile shop nearby.

Blaga and her husband, Pavlo, have three other kids. They live in a modest duplex.

When they first came to Florida from the Ukraine about five years ago, Blaga's husband was working full time in construction. She was a stay-at-home mom because she could be. Now her husband works part time painting houses.

Nazar isn't just worried about his family's situation, Blaga said. He seems preoccupied with other people's socioeconomic status, too. He asks, "Are they rich or poor?"

"I try to explain to him that it doesn't matter if people are rich or poor," she said. It only matters "that you are a good person."

• • •

Last year was gloomy for Rich Massell's boat lift business.

We couldn't have been in a worse place, said owner Massell, 49.

Business at DECO Boat Lifts was down 40 percent compared to three years ago. Staff shrank from more than 20 people to just 15, mostly through attrition.

"That's why I went to four days a week, because I don't want to fire any of these guys," Massell said.

Before the economy took a dive, Florida was decimated by the sharp rise in real estate prices and the taxes that came with them, he said.

"We drove people out of the state," Massell said.

But now, Massell, whose business relies on people buying homes on the water, see signs people are again coming to Florida.

Last month, while installing boat lifts, four homeowners told him they decided to buy here because they thought the time was right, he said.

"I expect to hire people this summer," Massell said. "Things are already better now than they were last year at this time."

• • •

Rebecca Bonetti's husband, Scott, was in the mortgage business. And for years they felt pretty secure.

"The income he made kept going up, and we let our lifestyle go up with it," said Bonetti, 35, who has two children Leah, 5, and Nick, 3.

They planned to buy a house and rented a four-bedroom luxury townhome until they could afford to do so.

Then, the housing market tanked.

Scott got a management job at a call center, making about half as much as he once made. Bonetti started cleaning houses part-time.

They needed extra cash, so they took a loan out on one of their cars, she said. They got a month behind. The car was repossessed in November.

The couple has fallen two weeks behind on their $1,500 rent, and their landlord has threatened to evict them, she said.

Bonetti checked into the federally funded Women, Infants and Children program that provides food for low-income mothers and children. But she was told her family made too much money.

She never had to seek that type of help before.

"It's humbling. For a short time I was embarrassed," she said.

But she realized it wasn't her fault.

"If I didn't have God in my life I think I would have a lot harder time than I do," she said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

About this series

They say the recession is over. But is it? We're visiting streets throughout Pinellas County and asking people how they're doing. For today's story, we talked to people who live and work on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N in Safety Harbor.

Some Safety Harbor residents continue to struggle in recession 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 3:40pm]
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