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Cost of necessities has Florida's poor living on a razor's edge

Michelle Wyant, 39, of Clearwater, who has fibromyalgia, gets ready to ride her scooter to a part-time cleaning job, which she goes to before going to a full-time cleaning job.
Michelle Wyant, 39, of Clearwater, who has fibromyalgia, gets ready to ride her scooter to a part-time cleaning job, which she goes to before going to a full-time cleaning job.
Published Nov. 5, 2016

Michelle Wyant did some quick math in her head and realized she could exhale, even if only until the next bill comes due.

The $245 paycheck she picked up Thursday from her main cleaning job wasn't going to be enough to cover a $262 Amscot loan with interest due that night. Having taken some unpaid sick days because of her fibromyalgia, Wyant, 39, said the loan was her last resort to cover groceries, gas and an overdue water bill last month.

She picked up a few hours of side work that morning with another cleaning company, but that paycheck wouldn't hit her bank account for two weeks.

But then, in what she called a "gift from God," that day's cleaning client tipped her $20 cash, getting her enough to pay back Amscot with $3 to spare.

"That leaves me enough for a Dollar Tree box of six oatmeals," Wyant said. "That's my life."

While unemployment and poverty rates have declined over the last five years, 3.1 million Floridians remain trapped in poverty with few ways to get ahead. The poor spend a disproportionate amount of their income on rent, child care, food and other necessities and are more at risk of debt, late fees and predatory loans than higher income people, according to a recent study anchored by the Coalition on Human Needs.

In Florida, two-thirds of households earning less than $20,000 annually spend more than half of their incomes on rent alone, according to census data. Families living at or below the poverty line — $24,257 for a family of four — are also especially prone to evictions and inability to pay a security deposit along with first and last month's rent up-front.

Wyant had a career as a certified nursing assistant but had to quit when a fibromyalgia diagnosis in 2007 prevented her from being able to lift patients or stand on her feet all day.

For Wyant, poverty has been a generational constant in her family. Her mother, Lynette McLeroy, said she raised her five children in St. Petersburg with help from public assistance programs, and Wyant got her first job bagging groceries at 15.

She finished school and raised a daughter, now 20, but fell behind on bills when her illness kept her from working and she separated from her partner. Wyant said she has applied for disability benefits four times but has been denied in each instance.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, said more than 60 percent of people living in poverty have at least one person in the household working, but low-wage jobs with unpaid sick time or benefits keep families from getting ahead.

The coalition, along with the Florida Association for Community Action, Central Florida Behavioral Health Network and the Florida Coalition for the Homeless, which coordinated on the study, project that increasing the minimum wage and expanding housing subsidies to offset burdensome rental costs could dramatically help push many individuals over the poverty line.

"In some cases, it really is just a matter that low income people pay so much of their income on these basic necessities like rent and food," Weinstein said. "In other cases, they are actually paying more than other people pay because they can't go to the cheapest discounted large supermarkets because they can't get there, or they can't afford larger quantities to buy cheaply in bulk because they can't afford to pay upfront."

After separating from her partner in 2014, Wyant spent two years homeless, sleeping in her car or on friends' couches. She got help last year through the Homeless Empowerment Program, and she and her mother rented an $800-a-month bungalow together in Clearwater to share expenses.

Earning between $180 and $330 a week, depending on how many days off she has to take from her cleaning job because of chronic pain, Wyant lives day-to-day. Not even paycheck-to-paycheck.

Her income, along with her mother's $700 monthly Social Security, is barely enough to cover bills and is never enough to get ahead.

"I used to clip coupons, I shop at the Dollar Tree. What else can you do?" Wyant said.

She owns a car but can't afford to pay for the insurance or registration, so Wyant rides a bright pink scooter across town every day to her regular cleaning job in Pinellas Park and any side jobs she can find.

On Thursday, she climbed onto her scooter at 9 a.m. with a banana in hand for breakfast and $10 cash in her pocket. After the morning cleaning job, she would have to decide between eating lunch or buying oil for her scooter before clocking in to her 4:30 p.m. cleaning shift at H&S Swansons' Tool Co.

"Sometimes I get used to not eating all the time," Wyant said, deciding the oil must come first.

Her goal is to have three months of rent and electric payments in her savings account and enough cash to pay for car insurance and gas.

But a dream is to have enough pocket money to take her daughter out to a nice dinner or take a day off work to spend with family.

Lately, though, her extra cash has been spent on things like late fees for putting off a power bill.

"I grew up in poverty, so poverty is what I know," she said. "I want to get past it, and I don't plan on staying here long. But it's hard when you don't have many options."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.