Life on the edge

ALICE is employed, yet lives on life on the edge of poverty. Eking together funds for food, housing, transportation and health care, ALICE struggles to meet basic human needs. ALICE stands for Asset Limited Income Constrained, Employed. In San Juan County, nearly 40 percent of the residents fall into this category, or below.

“It’s almost an invisible problem,” said Director of the Joyce Sobel Family Resource Center Jennifer Armstrong. “You don’t realize how many people are struggling. Many of them — like seniors with mobility issues — live in isolation as they are unable to get out of the house much.”

In 2010, United Way began what is called the ALICE Report, which took an in-depth look at poverty state by state and county by county. The results published in 2016 showed that in San Juan County — despite having a slightly lower unemployment rate than the state average — nearly 30 percent of households are considered ALICE and another 10 percent live in extreme poverty. In contrast, throughout Washington, approximately 26 percent of the population are considered ALICE, while 11 percent are at poverty level.

“Ultimately, if Washington’s households can become financially stable, Washington’s economy will be stronger, and its communities more vibrant,” the ALICE Report website states.

At issue, according to Armstrong, is San Juan County’s high cost of living, especially regarding transportation and housing. Combined with the islands’ primarily seasonal, minimum-wage jobs, residents are left working two or three jobs and still struggling to survive. However, the federal poverty level does not take into account a city’s or county’s cost of living, Armstrong explained, therefore, that households in the ALICE bracket often do not qualify for federal programs because their income is considered to high.

San Juan citizens, nonprofits and local government are finding creative ways to ensure fellow islanders don’t fall through the cracks.


Cynthia Burke, for example, was tired of wasting food. As a business owner and a community member, she wanted to do something for fellow islanders in need. She organized “Kitchen Sink Dinners,” named after the expression: everything but the kitchen sink.

Burke began collecting food donated by farmers that is unsellable due to the way it looked, not because it was inedible. In what could be considered a win-win situation, every other Thursday from 4:30-6 p.m., she and a couple of volunteers box up individual dinners made from food that otherwise may be thrown out, and hand them out from the porch of her restaurant. No questions asked, she said, other than how many dinners are needed.

So far this year, she has held four dinners, providing food for an average of 36-54 people, including entire families.

“One woman burst into tears as I handed her the dinner, she was so grateful,” Burke said.

The next dinner is scheduled for Thursday, March 7, from 4:30-6 p.m., at Cynthia’s Bistro.

Burke’s current plan is to continue the dinners through April — when jobs pick back up for the summer season — and then start once more around September.

Another group of concerned citizens came together to form Nourish to Flourish, an informal organization, not a registered nonprofit, that has been brainstorming ways to end hunger on the island. The group’s proposal, the Fresh Bucks Initiative, would allow people on food assistance programs to spend twice as much on fresh produce.

“Anyone who has an electronic benefits card, when they buy fresh produce, Fresh Bucks would match that cost up to $20, every time they shop,” Eileen Frazier, one of the Nourish to Flourish members, explained. The program, should it succeed, could benefit farmers growing produce as well as those needing healthy food options.

“There are people on this island that exist on one meal a day,” Frazier said, clarifying that while she herself does not know a specific islander in that situation, she has spoken to friends who are aware of those cases.

The county through the San Juan County Health and Community Services Department offers several food assistance programs, according to Ellen Wilcox, Health Services Manager, including WIC, or Women Infants and Children, for new mothers and families, Senior Nutrition and SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Wilcox emphasized that many programs offered by the county assist all families regardless of income. early intervention services for children with known or suspected developmental disabilities or delays, public health nurse home visits for newborns, and several more.


According to Bill Cummings, the president of the board of the Friday Harbor Food Bank, an average of about 140 households seek food from the food bank on a weekly basis. During the winter, as jobs dwindle, the community’s need increases. During the government shutdown this past December and January, volunteers also noticed a bump in clients.

“We don’t ask anyone’s situation [be explained], so we don’t know exactly what caused the increase,” Cummings noted. “But we were busier during that time.”

In order to keep up with the steady demand, the food bank is remodeling to create more space. One wall will be knocked out to make way for additional storage, a freezer and refrigeration equipment, Cummings said. Anyone wishing to help, he added, can donate toward the expansion.

“We want to make sure people have access to nutritious food so our community can stay healthy,” Cummings said.

Armstrong added that they accept donations for household goods like soap, diapers etc, that are not available through the food bank. Office Manager Cindi Gutierrez keeps a running inventory of what is available. Anyone wanted to help, can contact her to find out what items are most needed.


Another issue Armstrong sees on the island is a lack of transportation availability, especially with the elder population. Public transportation in the islands is limited, and getting off the island for any reason can be expensive and time-consuming.

The resource center has been accepting donations of ferry tickets. Anyone who knows they will not use a ticket by the time it expires can donate it to the center, which will give it to someone in need, like a senior citizen with an off-island medical appointment.

“We can give you a donation receipt, and we will put the ticket to really good use,” Armstrong said.

To provide transportation as well as social, emotional and practical support to elderly, disabled or otherwise isolated islanders, the resource center also offers Island Neighbors, a program where caring and trained volunteers regularly visit and assist otherwise isolated individuals.


Affordable housing is the critical need in the county, Armstrong said.

“The reality is, a lot of people cannot even afford a one-bedroom apartment,” she said.

According to the ALICE Report, San Juan County residents spend an average of nearly $4,000 more on housing annually than the rest of the state. On average, a single adult on an “ALICE survival budget” pays approximately $800 in housing a month, in San Juan County. Statewide on average, however, that same person pays under $600. To compound that issue, there is a short supply of affordable places to live. For someone scraping finances together, an extra $4,000 is a huge hit to the pocketbook.

Homes for Islanders and the Home Trust are two local nonprofits attempting to address the issue. San Juan County government has also taken steps through the San Juan County Housing Program with the recent homeless count, called “Point-In-Time.” Since homelessness is difficult to track, the state-mandated PIT uses volunteers every Jan. 25 to attempt to get a consistent database. That report showed the numbers holding steady, however, it still identified 149 people who have no stable place to live. Since the original count in 2005, according to the report, the numbers have varied with an overall upward trend. In previous counts, people living in substandard structures lacking amenities were included in the count. However, due to changes in definitions at the Washington State Department of Commerce, those populations are now only counted if they are living in an RV or a boat.

United Way of San Juan County organized a cold-weather shelter program during the 2017-18 winter season. As temperatures dipped into freezing levels, people with nowhere to go could find warmth in one of the shelters United Way had arranged. Often times that location was a church. This winter, 14 people were able to escape the frigid temperatures, according to Winnie Brumsickle, volunteer coordinator for the Cold Weather Shelter program.

Wilcox noted that health department staff has noted a steady increase in community members they work with who report they can no longer afford to live in San Juan County especially because they can not find an affordable place to live.

“They end up leaving the county to seek more economic stability. When we lose more and more young working families, we are also losing essential pieces of the economic and social fabric that communities need to thrive,” Wilcox said.

Armstrong explained that even though it may appear that someone is making life choices that exacerbate their financial situation, they may be in the midst of a mental crisis or recovering from a trauma.

“No one chooses to be homeless,” Armstrong said.

For more information about ALICE and United Way, visit

To learn more about the Joyce Sobel Family Resource Center, visit

To learn more about the Friday Harbor Food Bank, visit