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Bridges Out of Poverty: Lee and Collier counties launch new initiative to end poverty

Business leaders and agency and community members meet at Mission Community Church in Fort Myers for the Bridges Out of Poverty training. The course educated people on closing the gap of understanding between social classes."
Gwendolyn Salata
Business leaders and agency and community members meet at Mission Community Church in Fort Myers for the Bridges Out of Poverty training. The course educated people on closing the gap of understanding between social classes.

Lee and Collier counties are taking a new approach to eradicating poverty by offering education to residents across diverse income brackets.

Bridges out of Poverty was created by Dr. Ruby Payne, an author and educator who's studied poverty in America for decades. Bridges is a community training course on closing the gap in understanding across social classes. The first step is to educate businesses and the middle class on the language of poverty. The second step is to offer classes that empower those in poverty to become self-sufficient.

The purpose is for those living in poverty to create their own life plan to self-sufficiency rather than relying solely on programs created by the middle and upper classes.

Michael Overway is the executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition and Hunger and Homeless Coalition of Collier County. He said success depends on everyone creating his or her own outline because language and social norms are different in every class.

“When you’re living in poverty and you come to the dinner table, you might ask the question, ‘Will there be enough to eat tonight?’” Overway said. “If you’re living in the middle class, you might come to the dinner table and wonder, ‘How good is it going to taste?’”

“If you’re living in wealth, you’re looking at the presentation of the table because you know quantity and quality are never going to be an issue,” he added.

The counties recently held two-day workshops for community leaders and members. Nearly 75 people attended the Lee County training at Mission Community Church in Fort Myers.

Day one was a simulation, facilitated by Think Thank, Inc., that challenged participants to view poverty from a different perspective. Attendees played the role of someone in a low-income family.

Everyone was given fake money and presented with four weeks of difficult scenarios, broken down into 15-minute increments. They had to make real-life choices, all while staying afloat.

Ellen Rifanburg, who works for Informed Choice Insurance Agency, played the husband of another participant who was pregnant in the simulation.

Because they started with $20, she and her wife chose not to use public transportation and walked to work instead. This penalized them by three minutes, and they were both fired.

By week two, Rifanburg was in jail because she had missed a meeting with her probation officer. She stayed there for the remainder of the simulation. Her wife was evicted and left without prenatal care because they had no jobs, transportation, or money.

Rifanburg said the simulation was realistic in that both systems, real and simulated, set people up for failure.

“You're now helpless because you can't do all of these tasks with the resources you have available,” she said. “Like, the only thing you're doing at this point is existing. Who wants to survive? For what? For another day of this?”

Other participants turned to selling drugs or refusing to pay their utilities so they could eat. Some participants kept their children home from school to watch younger siblings while both parents worked. By week three, 10 people were in a homeless shelter.

“There’s no hope,” Rifanburg said. “Once you lose hope, you lose reality. Once you lose reality, you start making bad decisions.”

Chris Villalobos with Dedicated Senior Medical Center played the role of a pawnshop owner, whom many people went to for a quick buck so they could eat or pay a bill.

“It’s stressful even on this side because you know people’s situations,” he said.

Villalobos took the Bridges training more than ten years ago. “Unfortunately, there's a lot of the same consistencies from probably 15 years ago community-wise,” he said. “Really, it's just the nagging feeling that there's still work to be done.”

Nadja Josephs and Madeline LaPack, who work for the Collier County Hunger and Homeless Coalition, portrayed the roles of a minimum-wage employer. Josephs felt that some people were missing from the training that day.

“I think this would be more ideal for the folks that have no clue, that have the money, that make the decisions on a politician, commissioner level,” Josephs said. “There are a lot of silver-spoon folks that would never know what a day in the world would be like living in poverty.”

Josephs and LaPack had to fire participants in a mass layoff, which made Lapack feel uncomfortable.

“You're really seeing their facial expressions change in a matter of minutes,” she said, referring to the other participants. “Then you look up, and you'll see six homes have been evicted.”

In real life, LaPack is the new Bridges case manager for the Collier coalition. “I think that these people that you see every day that are struggling, they didn't always struggle,” she said. “And I think that we hold biases, and we hold judgments based on what we're just seeing.”

Day two was a workshop led by Treasure McKenzie, a director with a professional development company called aha! Process. Attendees were introduced to what classes would look like for people experiencing poverty.

The Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World (GA) program, the second half of the Bridges program, offers free community classes for those struggling. Enrollees complete over 60 hours of training to build their own plan for stability.

“Most families who are living in poverty don't want to be there,” McKenzie said. “But if you're willing to do something different, this is where the magic happens.”

McKenzie said the Muskogee, Oklahoma community she lives in has graduated 519 people from the GA program over the last 13 years.

“Think of that as 519 families that have been affected, the children, the neighbors and the friends that have been affected by that many people,” she said.

After completing a course, McKenzie said there are regular follow-ups to measure success. Of those graduates, 85% increased their income, and 88% decreased their debt. A total of 73% are off social services.

Brittany Fining, the director of programs for the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, said Charlotte County has been a Bridges community since about 2013.

“Basically, when we're working with folks, we're kind of teaching them how to be a case manager in their own life or in the life of their family or in the life of their community,” Fining said.

The Charlotte coalition provides dinner and childcare for participants who are taking a course. They also give a Walmart gift card to every enrollee each week.

In addition to building a life plan, a large part of the coursework is to connect and share ideas with each other about how to improve a situation.

“I think that one thing that I find that's a little bit less tangible but just as important is, for a lot of our folks…coming to class is, like, the first time that they're sitting around with other adults and talking about what's going on in their life and kind of looking at it from an outside perspective,” she said.

Hope Stormm, a data entry specialist for the Collier coalition, was brought to tears by the training as she had grown up in poverty. The training really hit home. She said life for low-income families is overwhelming and that too many people look negatively at people using social services.

“It's not like, for the most part, that people in poverty are just using these programs just to use them,” she said. “It’s sometimes essential in order to just survive.”

“I think one of the biggest and most important things that at least I got out of the workshop, especially, was just having conversations and communicating and trying to understand and walk through it with people in poverty,” Stormm added, rather than just telling them how to fix their problems.

Each year, the Lee and Collier coalitions conduct a Point in Time (PIT) report of how many people are experiencing homelessness. The data collected represents about 30% of those who are without housing.

Overway said that Collier County’s 2022 PIT report revealed 458 people were without homes. That number was over 700 this year. Lee County had 560 people that were homeless in 2022. This year, 862 were without homes.

With more and more people struggling every year, Overway knew a change was overdue. “You have to have people who are living in poverty build their own life plan,” Overway said. “It’s something that they’ve actually accomplished on their own. It’s not something that somebody else just handed to them.”

Current programs, he said, are not helping people break their dependence on social services. Instead they're designed to keep people in the continuum of care.

“We have to create these programs that have sustainability and have impact for folks long term rather than just for people who are trying to create systems of care for others and don't really, truly understand what those impacts are,” Overway said.

The coalitions have applied for a grant with Molina Healthcare with the plan that it will help host the classes and transform the counties into Bridges communities.

“Hopefully, that will be the kickoff, the launch for us to become the richest community,” Overway said.

“The systems that we force people to navigate in are not necessarily systems that they're adept to navigating,” he added. “They’re full of barriers and burdens. And they're full of barriers and burdens because we've put them there…thinking that this is going to help the person.”

This story was reported and written for the Democracy Watch program, a collaboration between FGCU Journalism and WGCU News.
Gwendolyn Salata can be reached at gmsalata1366@eagle.fgcu.edu