JENSEN BEACH, Fla. — We first met Owen Russell back in April when the single dad and his 17-year-old daughter had just moved into a Jensen Beach church after months of church hopping and couch surfing.
Eight months later, Russell remains homeless, living in a church house temporarily.
Russell, a full-time driver for non-emergency patients, is among Florida’s working-class and first-time homeless who have become victims of a statewide housing crisis fueled by soaring rents, overpriced homes, and stagnant wages.
“I was able to support me and my daughter, and then all of a sudden, my income was not good anymore,” he said.
After more than a year of living homeless, Owen, a Florida boy born and raised here, is ready to pack up one last time and leave. Over the next month or so, he plans on trading pricey Florida for a small, more affordable town in Georgia.
“I’m actually in the process of trying to buy a house where my mortgage payment will be $600 a month,” he said. “I am almost 50 years old, and I have to restart my whole entire life again and it's a shame, but it's something I have to do for me and my family.”
“He's doing everything, right. He used to be able to afford to live here on that same single income, and now he cannot,” explained Madeline Bozone Greenwood, who leads Family Promises in Martin County.
The organization is an advocacy group that helps families dealing with housing instability, including Owen’s. Her group is also helping Owen get a mortgage to make the move north. In the eight months since we last interviewed Greenwood, she said the calls for help have only gone up.
“The phones will ring constantly, and not just from our own county; we have people calling us from as far as Miami, up to Orlando,” she said.
But while Martin County, like many other counties and cities in Florida, has announced plans to build new affordable housing units, Family Promise in Martin County is working to create short-term solutions of its own.
Among the ideas include building tiny homes on church land and buying apartment units the organization can lease to families at discounted rates. Nothing, Greenwood said, is off the table given the community’s incredible need.
“We’re all just figuring this out together, and it's just a big mess. It's such a big mess,” she said, referring to the crisis hitting working and low-income families the hardest.
Across the state in St. Petersburg, more families are also experiencing homelessness. Among them include Tai Ortiz, a single father of four who recently moved his young family into a Family Promise shelter after being evicted from his rental and then losing his $50,000-a-year job when, he said, he couldn’t afford daycare for his youngest.
“Right now, I am doing Uber while they're in school and then overnight when I'm able to have someone watch them. That's pretty much all I can do right now until we get a referral for daycare,” he explained.
While St. Petersburg has been lauded as one of several Florida cities aggressively tackling the affordable housing crisis, with federal housing dollars dried up and pandemic-related federal assistance programs over, Florida’s Housing Coalition believes local governments need to take a closer look at rezoning single-family neighborhoods to multi-family.
Community land trusts, which are properties where the government owns the land a home is built on, are also likely to become more widespread in Florida as affordable housing remains a statewide crisis.
“Do you think that we've experienced the full consequences of this crisis, asked Reporter Katie LaGrone.
“I don't know. I guess that's yet to be seen. I'd say right now, things are pretty dire for a lot of individuals and families,” explained Amanda Rosado with Florida’s Housing Coalition.
“It just doesn't make sense for the normal person to struggle to live here,” Owen Russell said.