What is life like for 169,692 Lee County families living in poverty?

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – Unpaid bills, low wages, hopelessness, hunger and homelessness.

In Lee County 169,692 families struggle with poverty; The Lee County School District simulated a month in the lives of these families for 50 participants Monday.

Among the participants was reporter Stephanie Susskind, who played the role of a 1-year-old named Josh Jacobi. Josh Jacobi lived with his 19-year-old mother and her boyfriend. In the poverty simulation, his mother was unemployed and trying to reestablish food stamps while the live-in boyfriend worked to pay for food, rent and other necessities.

The family was just getting things under control when they were evicted from their apartment.

Had Josh Jacobi been old enough to attend school in Lee County, he may have joined the more than 70 percent of students who qualify for school lunch subsidies, according to statistics from the school district. The poverty rate for children under 18 is 23.5 percent, which is higher than the average poverty rate — 16 percent — in Lee County, record show.

In the simulation, Josh Jacobi became homeless. Poverty and the lack of affordable low-income housing are the primary causes of homelessness in Florida, according to the school district. The demonstration showed participant Debra Haley of New Horizons how close impoverished families are to homelessness.

“I think it really brings home to me the reality of what homeless families, families living in poverty really face, and you get into that position and how do you get out?”

Other participants, like Terri Ann Lindo of United Way, felt like poverty could create feelings of hopelessness and depression.

“I really started to feel the depression set in and the frustration set in on what do I do? Where am I going to be tonight? How’s my child gonna eat?” Lindo said.

Many people walked away from the simulation with a greater appreciation for compassion.

“It really solidified what I already felt and known,” Rob Malpica, a nurse at Early Head Start, said. “I really learned that sometimes we need to have a little more empathy for people.”

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