No Room at the Inn

Ben leaned forward over the table, a worn-out look of compassion all over his face.  “Last month, we received 27 calls from families in Sarasota living in their cars, with no place to park for the night, and many more calls from couples, afraid to admit their children are with them for fear of their being taken away.  In Sarasota, “Lodging” (sleeping in cars) is illegal, leads to arrest and compounding the vehicle.

“In the 40s we had shanty towns and tent cities, but now our few family shelters are full and the calls are escalating at alarming rates. Yesterday, 3 families with nowhere to stay walked into our call center.  It is very difficult for us at the 211 Hotline because we have nothing to offer, and can only listen to their desperation”, Ben Kunkel exclaimed.  Director of Operations and Communications at United Way 211 of Manasota, one of 17 community-based call centers in the State of Florida, Ben pleaded with the agencies in the Continuum of Care meeting to help solve this immediate need by locating a safe haven where these families can park overnight and a restroom is available. 

The recent 60 Minutes segment on a Florida family living in a bread truck showed the children’s secret life, alternating between gas station restrooms to not draw attention to themselves.  As in that family’s case, many of our homeless families have children in our school system, just trying to blend in, keep their humiliating secret and get through the day like any other child.  Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to their survival, let alone success in school, just as their parents’ sleep determines their ability to seek work and find their way through the labyrinth of social services in getting back on their feet. 

Ellen McLaughlin from Sarasota’s Schoolhouse Link noted that last year there were more homeless students identified in Sarasota County (1229) than since Hurricane Charley in 2004, a 32% increase from the previous school year. That number can be doubled with under-school-age children and those not attending school.   “Homelessness is a traumatic experience for children, and sadly, most families are now remaining homeless for longer periods of time because they can’t access financial aid or employment which could enable them to move into their own place.  The safest place for these children is in school, and that is what Schoolhouse Link provides:  the opportunity for homeless students to enroll, attend and succeed in school”.  (TheSarasotaY.org)

The face of homelessness in Sarasota, too, has changed – Florida is second only to California in the number of homeless.  Many families double and triple up with other families in crowded spaces, live in cheap hotels night by night with their last dollars or agencies’ slashed emergency funds, or as a last resort, live out of their cars (if fortunate enough to still own one) or tents, hidden so they won’t be arrested for sleeping outside which is also illegal in Sarasota. 

Richard Martin, former Mayor of Sarasota and Director of the Suncoast Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness which leads the Continuum of Care, pointed out, “Sarasota-Manatee may look the same but is experiencing extraordinary poverty and homelessness which is still mostly invisible”. Our service providers are so overwhelmed by the numbers in need and lack of resources to effectively address the problems that often, they are able to only help those who have a chance of success.  Many others are left on the street.  Here, in one of the wealthiest and most beautiful communities in the nation, we are in a mode of survival of the fittest. 

Step Up:  End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now, a ten year plan to end homelessness in our community, will be released December 21. The draft plan will then be available for review online where community residents can add comments and suggestions, make contributions and volunteer to get involved. 

But even before its release, let’s solve this one problem  by offering homeless citizens living in their cars a safe place to park overnight.  (A job would be nice, too.)   Please contact me at Compassionate Sarasota through the Herald Tribune to offer a church, business, public or private safe parking space(s) and nearby bathroom, or to share blessings of the holidays by taking one of these families under your (angel) wings,. 

Marguerite Jill Dye’s column, “Compassionate Sarasota”, explores the reality of homelessness in our community, one story at a time. Jill serves on the Health and Human Services Committee of the Step Up plan, has an MA in Inter-cultural Management and is an artist/writer living in Sarasota and Vermont. (MargueriteJillDye.wordpress.com and madebygallery.com)

A Movement of Miracles

By Marguerite Jill Dye

This well-groomed, self-assured, intelligent member of our Health and Human Services Committee couldn’t possibly be the same homeless man we had watched, helplessly, fall into unconsciousness one month before.  Across the table at the first meeting of “STEP UP:  End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now”, he began to drool, moan then slump over, unresponsive.  By the time the ambulance arrived, he was out cold. 

Like the police, we didn’t notice his emergency medical ID bracelet labeled DIABETES.  Often mistaken as drunk when severe diabetic hypoglycemia attacked, he was arrested and even banned from riding the public buses in Sarasota until, nine months later, columnist Tom Lyons shamed SCAT into revoking its decision.  Walking and bicycling in Sarasota’s heat required tremendous exertion and added dramatically to his decline, both physically and mentally.  At 50, too young for Medicare, turned down for disability, solely living on food stamps, this former International Monetary Fund accountant’s last job was with a prestigious financial firm in Sarasota.  His final paychecks bounced.  He lost his job, health care, apartment, then car.

He had only been homeless for three months when I met him.  If it hadn’t been for his fiancée’s medical training and survival skills, he wouldn’t have lasted that long.  Living at a makeshift campsite in a grassy field, trying to stay safe, alive and out of sight to avoid arrest for sleeping outside was no cure for a serious health condition:  Diabetes Mellitus or Youth-Onset Diabetes I. 

I was so worried about their hopeless situation that I sought inspiration at the Mother’s Day service at the Center for Positive Living.  During coffee, I mentioned their plight to a stranger, also suffering in Sarasota’s housing market.  Two days later she called to announce, “My son didn’t give me a Mother’s Day present so I asked for one – to let the homeless couple occupy his tiny rental unit for a few months, rent free.” What a miracle!

Our committee members collected furniture, household items and donations for utilities costs and helped move them in while my husband and I took the man to their campsite to collect their bikes and other belongings.  Crossing the field in 100 degree sun, he suddenly became disoriented and unresponsive.  My husband nearly had to carry him back to the car.  We managed to get some cola into him before he passed out, but we were shaken by the experience and could see how quickly his attacks could come on. 

Six months later they are still living in the little apartment, but their generous landlords, now financially challenged, themselves, need to charge $400 per month plus utilities — an extremely low rent in a city that lacks affordable housing, but insurmountable for a couple living on food stamps. The fiancée is unable to seek or secure work because the man still needs constant care and vigilance.  Even while monitoring his blood glucose levels 6-7 times a day, his Hypoglycemic Unawareness leads to sudden, dramatic fluctuations in his blood sugar levels which continue to worsen, threatening his life.  Several times a week, paramedics rush him to the ER to prevent his slipping into a diabetic coma.

He has re-applied for disability, now 1-2 years behind in reviewing cases, with no guarantee he will qualify in spite of his totally debilitating condition — so severe that he now should be in assisted living – a rare requirement since the homeless tend to die young.  Should he return to homelessness, I have no doubt it will quickly lead to his death.  This case exemplifies how stability in work, housing, transportation, and health care allows a person to manage a serious health challenge, but loss of any of these can lead to homelessness, a dire health crisis and even death.

Over the past year, hundreds of Sarasotans have come together to develop “STEP UP:  End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now”, a comprehensive strategy addressing the needs of our homeless that will be released December 21.  To read it, contribute financially and volunteer please go to www.stepupsarasota.org   Let’s begin a Movement of Miracles in our Compassionate Sarasota! 

Artist/writer Marguerite Jill Dye shares stories of some of Sarasota’s homeless citizens through her column, “Compassionate Sarasota”.  Health and Human Services Committee member, STEP UP: End Homelessness in Sarasota County.  MargueriteJillDye.WordPress.com , madebygallery.com