Family Values that Value Families

Joy was laid off after maternity leave with a 22 month old and then her fiancé lost his job.   They continued intense job hunts in Washington State for two years, ran out of unemployment, savings and family help.  When friends in Florida encouraged them to return to Sarasota, Joy was hopeful.  “I graduated from Booker High School and have lived here on and off since 1993.  I have history here, and Sarasota is one of my biggest loves”.

When their immediate job hunts bore no fruit, they doubled up in Joy’s best friend’s home, but her landlord protested. “It broke her heart to turn us away.”  The Salvation Army and Resurrection House were unable to help with temporary lodging for the whole family, and Joy couldn’t bear to be separated from her fiancé.  That’s when they lived in the minivan for three weeks – two kids, Joy – an emotional wreck with hormones raging – and her fiancé trying to hold the family together and provide for them with food stamps, alone. 

When the elementary school said Joy couldn’t enroll seven year old Justin without an address, Sarasota Y’s Schoolhouse Link and Family Promise worked together to get Justin into school under the federal McKinney-Vento Act and outfitted him with clothing, shoes, a back pack and school supplies.  Then, at a time when Joy’s own family was pushing them away for being homeless, Wendy Fitton accepted them into Family Promise and their coalition of churches – the only agency that could house the whole family.

“We were given a gift.  You’ve got to want it and show them that you won’t give up.  They push you. To qualify for Family Promise we had in-depth interviews, tests for drugs and alcohol.  For 99 days, we rotated weekly between churches in the program and sometimes stayed in the Family Promise house for 2 or 3 weeks, packing up our belongings with each move.  Family Promise helped us with our resumes, find employment, gas for the car, diapers, wipes, clothing, shoes, special needs food, all of our essentials  —  It’s the only place I know that helps families completely, with everything we need to survive and feel better about ourselves, including emotional support through counseling, prayers, advice on parenting and a hug.  It’s beautiful.  It’s like family.”

“It’s been a long road, but I’ve had faith and wouldn’t give up.  Now we are blessed with this place to live and I am really happy.”  With rent $250 more than a mortgage would be, they are trying to piece together a small down payment and financing because “It’s worth owning instead of renting to be sure we won’t be homeless again.” 

Determination is Joy’s strength — she put herself through college in NYC, “learning humility”, with degrees in Early Childhood Education and World Fine Art History.  Her dream is to work at the Ringling Museum and become a curator “or even fetch her coffee!”  In NY she spent every waking moment at the Metropolitan. 

“Childcare is impossible in Sarasota for the poor, and costs are out of this world,” Joy continued.  “Our church, Faith Presbyterian, fed over 200 families for Thanksgiving and sends more than 250 boxes of gifts abroad.  But the churches can’t do everything.  They really need help.  

“I see a lot of homeless people struggling in the street — handicapped, unable to care for themselves, beaten, abused…  When we were homeless, living in our minivan, we made breakfast for the disabled who couldn’t get around.  One day, we watched them being carted away by the police.  Sarasota is trying to eject the homeless. A large majority just had a hard time.  People do need help, real help.  Even those with drug and alcohol issues are human beings and need help and love, companionship and support.  How will they turn around if only met by anger?  You fight the war against homelessness with love, not anger.

I know there’s a deficit, but there’s a lot of wasteland out there and trees we can build with.  There’s enough for everyone.  We are all only human and we live in this world together.”

Step Up Sarasota. 

www.stepupsarasota.org    tel. (941)565-1540

www.familypromisesarasota.org/        www.TheSarasotaY.org/schoolhouselink  

Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist/writer living in Sarasota and Killington, Vermont. She served on the Health and Human Services Committee for developing Sarasota’s Ten Year Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.    (MargueriteJillDye.wordpress.com)

Faith and Hope in Compassionate Sarasota

Mother and daughter burst into tears when I offered to find a temporary home for their nine year old Lhasa Apso.  “I’d rather camp out than leave him behind.  It would be like abandoning a baby.  If I were an inconvenience, would you leave me behind?  I’d never forgive you”, the fourteen year old daughter, Hope, cried.  Then Hope’s mother, Faith, confided, “When I feel hopeless he jumps up on the bed, flips on his back and looks at me with his adoring, reassuring eyes.  I can’t imagine a day without him.  He’s our little angel.”

You’d think it would be easy for Faith to find secure work that pays enough to live on.  As a hard and devoted worker with thirty years’ experience in customer service, Faith has excellent computer and web design skills — an asset in any office.  With a decent job, they could escape living in a motel, day to day, depending on help from her mother and sister, and wearing out their welcome with friends. Sometimes Faith has ended up in a tent in friends’ back yards with the pup, depending on the landlord and space.  Other times mother and daughter have had to separate to double up with friends in studio apartments or rooms. 

When Faith was laid off from a stable job due to downsizing, she launched a massive job hunt and pieced together cleaning vacation rentals in spite of two herniated disks and failed back surgery. Over time she was able to raise the first, last and security deposit to move into a small apartment, but when her landlord realized she couldn’t pay the full rent on the first of each month (since she was paid on the fifth and thirtieth ), he asked them to leave — two weeks into Hope’s starting high school.  Then they stayed with another friend until she lost her home to foreclosure.

Faith has raised her two children by herself.  Hope hasn’t seen her dad in four years, and her brother, now 24, was only three when his father left.  “When I put my son through school, he never had to go through this – he never experienced homelessness.” Faith sent both of her children to Julie Rohr Academy, a private school for the performing arts. They thrived with self-expression and joy, but now her daughter has become painfully introverted and walks around school with a fake smile on her face to keep from breaking down or letting on to their situation. “She won’t even let me use the word ‘homeless’ to describe our situation.

“My biggest priority is for her to be happy.  She’s normally a happy girl, but I can see the sadness in her,” Faith explained.  “Hope is a good girl.  She’s had a few challenges lately with our living conditions and with friends who’ve made the wrong decisions, but she’s done the right thing and walked away from a bad situation and called me.  I remind her every day of how proud I am of her. 

“I want a secure office job.  I am very devoted to my work and have great references.  I’ve had interviews and really want this job – it’s what I love to do. I get a second interview, but then no call, no email.  That’s when the depression starts to set in.  People tell me it’s the economy.  I used to have three or four job offers at once, and now I can’t even get one job.”

The only impediment to secure housing and escaping from homelessness for this mother-daughter-pup team is a stable job that pays a living wage.  Faith is a strong, responsible, independent woman who has succeeded throughout her life in providing for her children and maintaining a warm, loving home.  Surely, somewhere in Compassionate Sarasota there is a good job for Faith, and an affordable apartment or house near Hope’s school – Riverview High School.  This is a straightforward, uncomplicated wrong that we can right with so little effort. 

Step Up Sarasota. 

www.stepupsarasota.org    tel. (941)565-1540

Marguerite Jill Dye served on the Health and Human Services Committee for the Suncoast Partnership in developing the Step Up:  End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now ten year plan.   Jill has an MA in Inter-cultural Management and is an artist/writer living in Sarasota and Vermont. (MargueriteJillDye.wordpress.com)

DREAMing of a HOME

DREAMing of a HOME      by Marguerite Jill Dye

Living half the year in the Green Mountains of Vermont in the ski lodge my Dad dreamed of building (and built!) gives me a special perspective on dream homes.  I understand the magic and healing that living in one’s dream home provides, the dedication and hard work required in building one, and have sensed the magnetic pull in searching for one.  I know the importance of living in a place where one feels at home, safe from the outside world, able to rest and recuperate from the challenges that life brings.

When we aren’t living in my Dad’s dream home in Vermont, we live in Sarasota, Florida, where we used to own an island dream home of our own in an idyllic beach enclave but escaped from an escalating mortgage we couldn’t afford.  We were very fortunate.  Some of our neighbors lost their homes to foreclosure after the market crashed, dropping values in half.  Now, instead of owning (like many other Floridians who lost or sold their houses over the past few years), we rent a condo downtown. 

Living downtown has provided us with an urban setting, great convenience and an opportunity to learn about our own underworld, our community of refugees, our homeless.  In “Musings on a Park Bench”, I described meeting a middle-aged, homeless, female veteran on a park bench and how we spent several months working together to permanently solve her housing problem.   

While some of us are living in our dream homes, others are dreaming of living in a home, any home. Dream homes are relative – a castle or mansion can be less loved and appreciated than a shack or a shanty as I witnessed in the slums (“villa miseria” or “misery village”) of Buenos Aires where poor migrants from the countryside build simple structures on vacant land to serve as protection for their families while they seek to create a better life in the city.  The only difference between the poorest of the poor in Sarasota and Buenos Aires is that in Argentina they have a roof over their heads and a place to call “home”, whereas in Sarasota, our homeless have nowhere to go to sleep safely and under cover, and if discovered by the police – huddled under bushes or trees – they are arrested and fined for sleeping outside.  The Salvation Army has a limited number of beds available for $10 per night, but many of our homeless have no income and are existing on Food Stamps, so can’t afford to pay for a place to sleep. 

In our society, a perfect storm of economic, structural, governmental and social conditions have left many citizens without jobs, housing, sufficient food, a feeling of safety/security, physical or mental health care — the most basic human rights.   Our economic crisis has created a floating population of homeless, American citizens living in exile in their own country, outcasts of our society.  Our heads are in the sand as we drive or walk by these invisible citizens, removing park benches as a way to “deal” with the homeless so we needn’t get too close or even begin a conversation.    

All over the world, when societies break down to such an extent that some of their citizens lack basic human needs, governments unite to respond to the human suffering for the poorest of the poor, be they refugees or victims of war, violence, natural or manmade disasters.  In recent years the “Sun Belt” along the Gulf Coast has seen the sharpest increase in poverty in the U.S.  Along with our housing crash, unemployment rates in our poorest neighborhoods have soared to as high as 30%.  Florida’s funding for the homeless (one of the highest homeless populations in the US and growing) has dropped to the second lowest in the country only next to Wyoming which has no programs for the homeless.

Surely in a community of residents as talented, experienced and successful as Sarasota’s, we have an opportunity and a duty to work together in creative problem solving and meaningful management of skills and resources.  We have completed our community’s ten year plan, “Step Up:  End Homelessness in Sarasota County Now!”  Let’s replace Sarasota’s uncaring image with one of compassion.  Let’s rally our resources and Step Up Sarasota so those who’ve lost hope can begin DREAMing of their HOME! 

Marguerite Jill Dye

Chesca’s Cuisine or Delectable Dining in Edgartown

Last spring, my husband and I had never heard of Chesca’s, but when our son, Chef Daniel Finger (formerly of Water Street at the Harborview Resort) was enticed to cook there, we set out for Martha’s Vineyard to see Danny and visit his new restaurant where Chefs David Joyce and Chef Jo Maxwell are the renowned husband/wife chef/owners.  Situated in the heart of Edgartown, Chesca’s diners can be spotted on its front porch perched above Water Street, sipping wine in rocking chairs watching lightening bugs and other lively islanders pass by.

When we entered the bright, beautiful dining room we were greeted with a warm welcome by Chef David, Chef Daniel and his team of talented cooks.  We chose to sit in the cozy bar where we relaxed over drinks with hot ciabbatta and crusty multi grain bread accompanied by a white garlic bean spread, fragrant dipping olive oil and sweet butter.  The tasting began in ernest with panko-encrusted butterflied shrimp over a small salad of delicate arugula and other baby greens grown on island, dressed in Chesca’s famous balsamic vinaigrette.  A tender sea scallop, seared to perfection and topped with a swirl of casino butter, was served on a delectable spinach pillow, surrounded by jewel tone drops of brilliant chive oil and orange oil.   The dish was so beautiful I wished I had carried my camera.  Next, a melt-in-your-mouth petite sirloin topped with porcini mushroom butter arrived, sitting on a raft of sautéed island asparagus and slivered portabella.  By then, onlookers at other tables were pointing and ordering what we were “oohing” and “aahing” over, with each savory bite.

A raspberry sorbet palate cleanser was gorgeous to behold and offered a dense, refreshing sweetness of my very favorite fruit.

When our entrées arrived, we were ecstatic, my husband with his papardelle pasta bathed in veal shoulder and pancetta bolognaise with a dollop of cream in the sauce, and my special of the day  –seared, flaky cod swimming in a pool of fish broth with white beans, spinach and tomato chunks, a sort of fish cassoulet extraordinaire.  Heavenly!  The grand finale was when Chef Daniel carried out a warm crème anglaise with a brulée top and raspberries.  We were fit to be tied and waddled down Water St., praising Chesca’s fare.

We returned a few nights later, in spite of a late lunch and looming rainstorm, to sample the mussels in a leek, roasted fennel (a much more delicate flavor, Chef David explained), shallot and wine sauce to die for.  We chose a dessert of creamy cappuccino ice cream on a rich, fudgy brownie, drenched in Chesca’s famous dark chocolate sauce with two chocolate antennas topping it off.  After dinner we rocked away with other contented diners, raving about our dishes between blasts of thunder as we watched a lightening show shoot streaks of blinding neon across the sky, a fitting end to another thrilling evening.

Our last night at Chesca’s we relished the golden brown, meaty crab cakes with a zingy sauce served with a whisper of sweet mandarin slices, red peppers, herbs and crunchy, sliced fennel.  Fabulous!  Island grown broccolini in olive oil and garlic was hot and crispy.  The angel hair pasta happily soaked up the white clam sauce – a medley of littlenecks, sautéed, and chopped clams, parsley and lemon.  Wow! 

We strolled down Water Street as happy as the clams we had devoured, eager to return to Martha’s Vineyard for our next culinary adventure at Chesca’s.

On Sunday morning we reluctantly bade farewell to our son, Chef Daniel, before driving to the West Tisbury Arts and Crafts Market where Chesca’s Chef Jo Maxwell served a variety of quiche, cakes and muffins.  We gobbled up the fabulous feta, spinach and tomato quiche and a strawberry muffin (Martha’s Vineyard strawberries, naturally) before heading for the ferry to return to Vermont. 

You can be sure that future visits to the enchanting island of Martha’s Vineyard will include dinner at Chesca’s where perfect preparation and presentation, a bright, beautiful dining room, cozy bar and friendly, professional staff create a unique, gourmet dining experience  that we found to be truly irresistible. 

Now Danny is baking at Café Provence in Brandon, Vermont, and will come to Sarasota in January and February to work with Chefs Mack De Carl and Chef Jeremy before returning to Chesca’s for its six month season.  Maybe we’ll meet there next summer when we return, rocking on the porch and conversing with other more-than-satisfied diners.  In the meantime, Bon appétit!

Marguerite Jill Dye, Artist/Writer

MargueriteJillDye.wordpress.com, madebygallery.com

jilldyestudio@aol.com

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)

Musings on a Park Bench

I never could have imagined how dramatically two lives could change by sitting on a park bench.  We had just moved downtown into a high rise condominium when I went for my first walk outside, carrying Carolyn Myss’ book about St. Teresa which I had been studying.  I sat by a woman feeding an egret, overlooking Sarasota Bay.  Our conversation began with her bird, then meandered through fowl, fish, Sarasota, New England (where her daughter and our son live), then returned to fishing in the Bay.  Little by little I discovered that her fishing rod had been stolen from under a nearby bush.  She had nowhere safe to leave it.  She was homeless.  She took showers at the Resurrection House, ate at the Salvation Army, then slept in secret hiding places to avoid being attacked or arrested since sleeping out-of-doors is against the law in Sarasota, even when someone has nowhere else to go.

I couldn’t sleep that night or those that followed, worrying about her safety, so I began making calls to see if something could be done.  I couldn’t imagine a 55 year old woman living under such conditions in Sarasota, one of the wealthiest cities in America.  I found her a few days later, same bench, same time, and we began a three month marathon winding our way through the labyrinth of social services in search of birth certificate, social security disability requalification, and military discharge papers because she was a veteran of the United States Navy.  Many mornings before appointments we began at McDonalds, sharing our life stories over breakfast while trying to determine the next step.  She revealed many aspects of her life but wouldn’t talk about her service aboard a U.S. Naval ship where something terrible happened that led to her mental breakdown, loss of her daughter and ensuing homelessness. 

We were about to get her waitlisted for public housing, which can be a very long wait, indeed, when President Obama’s HUD Voucher Program for Homeless Veterans came through, the very day we arrived at the Veteran’s Clinic for medical and psychological exams.  Two months later, she moved into her little “cottage” apartment with a HUD Housing Choice Voucher which provides a rent subsidy, enabling her to afford to rent a small apartment in Sarasota which was previously impossible.   My friends answered my e-mail appeals for furniture, clothing and most everything else she needed to set up a cozy home where she remains, safe and secure, eighteen months later.

I can’t say that weaving our way through agencies and services was easy, even with my telephone and car.  It was often exasperating and fruitless, leaving us discouraged and exhausted.  But thanks to the Program for Homeless Veterans, our efforts ended successfully, and I can truthfully say that helping her proved to be one of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences of my life.

A park bench provided the intersection of our two, very different universes so we might learn to know and respect each other, become friends and collaborate to creatively solve a critical problem.  She prayed for a miracle in a roof over her head, while I prayed for an opportunity to help.  Through the blessing of a park bench, both of our prayers were answered.

(Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer living in Sarasota and Vermont and recently served on the Health and Human Services Committee in the development of the Suncoast Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness Ten Year Plan.  This guest column was published by the Herald Tribune, The Brave Discussion, and numerous other web sites and blogposts.)