In Poverty’s prison

Pastor Dave Houck, left, talks with Samantha Lee about what help she needs after receiving temporary custody of her three nephews. Lee’s daughter, 3-year-old Ella Grace Lee, races across the floor at the home in Ocala National Forest.

All Samantha Lee wants right now is some sleep.

Even on its best days, life in Scramble Town — as the residents call this neighborhood of Ocala National Forest — is a bleak battle for food, shelter, gas and medicine.

On those best days, even a weary mom like Lee, 32, can somehow scrape together the bare necessities for her six children, as well as the three nephews she’s taken in from their drug-addicted mother.

Today is not a best day.

It’s a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and nephews Colten, 7, Mark, 3, and Owen, 2, were delivered to Lee the day before by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Mark and Owen were sick with fevers.

A long night of crying for their mother didn’t help.

That means Lee — after scooting four kids ages 8 to 14 off to school — needs to find a doctor for the three boys while caring for her own 3-year-old and 5-month-old girls.

In this rural wilderness about 40 miles north of The Villages, the most affordable option is a clinic about half an hour away. The surprise expense will mean making a tough cut somewhere else. But Lee will have to worry about that later: Mark goes home from the doctor with a cold, while Owen’s lungs are filled with bronchitis.

That home is a place where Mark’s toddler feet race around over a plywood subfloor. Clad in a T-shirt and Paw Patrol underwear, he ignores the snot dripping over his upper lip while he babbles his way around a room with exposed wires poking through the walls and blankets hanging where curtains should be.

Meanwhile, Owen crashes in front of a window air conditioner, oblivious to the chaos of his brother and cousin Ella jumping around and screeching childspeak. His ears red and his breathing shallow, he takes up only a half a sofa cushion curled in the fetal position with a blanket pulled to his chin.

Soon, the other children will be home, joining their grandmother who also lives here. A few hours later, Lee’s husband, James, 33, will return from a 14-hour day at his $16-per-hour masonry job.

And all 12 of them will be hungry.

Enter Pastor Dave Houck, a religious leader familiar to the estimated 40,000 to 45,000 people living in the forest’s borders, where faith-based organizations are working to close a gap the government can’t.

Here, 22% of people like Lee live below the poverty line, compared to 15.5% statewide. That threshold is $25,750 annually for a family of four; Lee’s household of 12 is scraping by on about $33,000.

Their only sources of income are James’ earnings, $263 monthly for the three children placed by DCF and $178 monthly from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Today, Houck is visiting Lee to deliver food and spiritual support. 

 “Hot dogs are God’s favorite food,” he suggests with a smile for her next grocery order, “because all God’s creations are in a hot dog.”

Houck, himself a product of the forest’s abject poverty, presides over Salt Life Church and the Help Agency, a not-for-profit charity he founded 26 years ago to benefit his forest flock.

Lee was one of the first children served by the Help Agency’s mentor center that opened 15 years ago.

Lee and her husband were both born in the forest, as were their parents. Lee said she doesn’t mind where she’s at, but she wishes the financial burden of her life could improve.

“I need help,” Lee said. “I’m used to a lot of kids, but I generally struggle to do it all alone, so I had to call in reinforcements.”

Lee is one of the successes of the forest, Houck said.

“Basically, Sam came up in poverty,” he said, “but she hasn’t become a statistic. Her husband works, and she’s a good mom. Sam will make sure (the kids) are fed and clothed and healthy.”

She, like her brother and sister-in-law, also has graduated from high school.

“She really stepped up for those kids,” Houck said.

In a world with so much need and so few social services, getting ahead is a pushing-a-boulder-up-the-hill fight that few manage to win.

“The problem with the cycle of poverty is it’s intergenerational, and it’s taught,” Houck said. “Parents teach their kids how to be poor. ‘This is how we did it, this is how it’s done,’ but if you can catch a kid young enough. ... Kids have to have enough experiences to know that there are different things out there.”

Inside The Forest

Not all forest residents live in squalor. The 607-square-mile forest is a checkerboard of government-owned and private property, and homes along the more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs are especially valuable.

For instance, one 10-bedroom home on a 16-acre farm currently lists for $699,000, and an empty 85-acre hunting parcel is being offered for $680,000.

But in the Scramble Town pockets of poverty, families are living in structures ranging from 1960s mobile homes to tents, garden sheds and shacks they’ve built from scrap metal and wood.

Lee’s nephews were removed from a single-wide mobile home with particle board flooring, broken furniture and water-damaged drywall punctured by exposed wiring and plumbing. Three other ramshackle dwellings share the same patch of land.

Dirt roads in disrepair and a lack of internet access are two areas of focus for Marion County Commissioner Carl Zalak, who represents the area. To keep open the few transportation options residents have, the government tries to ensure the dirt roads are not washed out.

Other than basic services, such as garbage pickup, the operation of a community center and public safety response, there’s not much officials can do for a population “that has a tendency to be a little bit more alone and in isolation,” he said.

Zalak added that Houck’s private fundraising gives him the ability to serve residents as his charity sees fit in a way that elected officials can’t.

“Government is not the answer,” Zalak said. “Our community is.”

To Houck, a community can’t be successful without support from its residents and local representatives.

Missy McFarland, Houck’s cousin who lives in the forest, said the forest still needs more resources. Without transportation options for many of the people living there, McFarland sees a huge issue for adults interested in going to college or getting jobs but who can’t leave their neighborhoods.

“How do you expect these people to change their lives if they have no resources to do it?” she asked. “There’s great people in the forest. They’re close and very loyal to each other. There are some very smart people out there. People think, ‘They asked to live that way,’ but most of the time, kids don’t realize they’re poor until they go to school.”

Long Odds To Overcome

While the chaos in Lee’s world blares at full volume, her sister-in-law agonizes in the childless silence.

It was Leora Rutledge’s escape into drug use, she said, not the boys’ dilapidated living conditions, that prompted DCF to remove them.

DCF has regulations on housing that can lead to the removal of children from a home. Because assignments are not broken down beyond the county level across most of Florida, there is no way to get data on how many cases are from the forest specifically, according to David Ocasio, DCF Central Region public information officer.

However, in 2018, DCF had 8,633 children in family investigations in Marion County. Of those, 796 were removed from the home by DCF.

Statewide, there were 26,368 children removed.

While Florida law does not officially permit the removal of children because their parents are poor, this is “the underlying cause for almost all removal,” said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First.

Florida’s Children First, a nonprofit dedicated to the rights of at-risk children, believes a greater emphasis should be placed on supporting families so they can keep their children, Rosenberg said.

“When you aren’t in poverty and you have money, you have family, you have ways of dealing with those problems,” Rosenberg said.

Where people lack these characteristics, poverty often begins and can lead to a downward cycle, she said.

“Almost all the children in (DCF’s) care are there because of their families’ circumstances getting out of control,” she said. “Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘Today I’m going to neglect my child.’”

It’s hard for Rutledge to come home and not see her boys waiting for her, but it’s at least a 30-minute drive to Scramble Town, and she doesn’t have a car. It took five days after the boys’ removal before the Lees could bring her and their dad, Adam Tavernier, 33, for an afternoon visit.

DCF won’t let them spend the night.

Little Owen launched himself into her arms, hugging her as tightly as he could, forcing her to drop Colten’s lunchbox and a tote bag with crafts. Mark clung to his father outside while Colten watched.

Although this was the first time the Tavernier children were placed in Lee’s custody, she said it was the fourth instance in which she’s needed to have one or more of the kids living with her. The most recent time before this was when Colten wasn’t getting picked up from the school bus stop in the spring.

Lee kept him at her house from March until the school year ended in May to make sure he was getting to and from school.

Rutledge hunched over a Disney princess table, gathering her kids and their cousins for a sand craft she’d brought. Her long, thin legs protruded sharply from a short stool while she kept one hand on Owen, reassuring him she wasn’t going anywhere just yet.

“I just want a better life for my kids and for us to always be there for them,” she said.

She knows she needs to get clean, complete substance-abuse classes and be cleared by a mental health professional before she can take her kids home.

But she’s fuzzy on the details, just knowing her first trial will be Jan. 2.

For now, she’s unemployed and living with Tavernier and his parents while she sinks further into the clutches of deep poverty that few families here escape.

She has new motivation to hope but also new reason to despair:

She’s expecting a baby in the spring.

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.