Back to work: Season of Sharing helps retired Sarasota couple hit by rising cost of living

Categories: Stories of Impact, COMMUNITY CARE: Preventing Homelessness, Season of Sharing,

Anthony Ramirez remembers what it was like when a blue-collar worker could live large in America.

Back in the 1970s, when he was making $23 an hour as a factory man, he and his wife owned three cars and comfortably raised a family in their small home outside Buffalo.

Money stretched further then, he often thinks when he stops to reflect on it.

But he can't stop for long. Anthony is constantly in motion.

That's because at the age of 68 – less than two years since retiring after holding a job since he was 16 – Anthony is now back to work.

Not out of boredom. Not for a hobby. But because he and his wife – caught in the grip of the housing crisis, medical bills and soaring utilities – are trying to survive.

"I've been doing a lot of side jobs – plumbing and handyman and driving for people to the airport," he said. "We've been struggling a long time."

Like many area seniors calling local social services recently for help, Anthony wonders how he got here, one step from homelessness.

How to help your neighbors in need: Support Season of Sharing

The downward spiral started with his wife's heart attack.

Until that moment eight years ago, both had good jobs – Anthony as a government employee in Sarasota County – and a low, $600 monthly mortgage payment on the three-bedroom Englewood home that they bought in 2000 after moving to Florida.

Life in the Sunshine State was as relaxed and beautiful as they expected it to be.

"Then all of a sudden – bam!" Anthony recalled.

Once his wife needed massive heart bypass surgery, she could no longer work. Saddled with medical debt, Anthony had difficulty keeping up with all the bills on his own.

Before losing their house to foreclosure, he and his wife sold it, deciding to rent.

For a time, once his wife's Social Security disability payments kicked in, they found a rent-to-own opportunity – before losing that, too, when the arrangement with the owner fell through.

Then about seven years ago, they stumbled into a great set-up – a two-bedroom duplex for $825 a month, including water.

But then about two years ago, on the cusp of retirement, Anthony got word that new owners were acquiring the building. Rent soon shot to $1,200, plus water. To keep up, Anthony took on odd jobs.

"I retire, and now I'm looking for work," he said.

By this year, the rent was $1,700 a month, while he wrangled with the landlord about unrepaired damage to the lanai caused by Hurricane Ian.

This spring – with their expenses soaring for groceries, insurance, car repairs, medical bills and his wife's medications – the couple fell further behind on their electricity, an essential utility for his wife, who is on oxygen.

Anthony turned to Ola Medrzycki, the Friendship at Home manager for Senior Friendship Centers, who tapped Season of Sharing to pay the $765 bill.

According to many case managers like Medrzycki, Anthony is one of the lucky ones. He has a pension – unlike about half of Florida seniors age 65 and older who count on Social Security as a primary source of income.

This past year, Medrzycki's phone has been ringing off the hook by senior residents unable to keep up with the exploding costs of housing and other essentials.

That includes homeowners, who are facing exorbitant increases in homeowner's insurance rates.

"I think we're all in a weird place right now," she said of the toll caused by the housing crisis and other burdens befalling local residents.

For Anthony, the aid from Season of Sharing and the Senior Friendship Centers allowed him to catch up on his bills.

"If it weren't for the help from the centers, we would be homeless," he said.

It also provided a cushion for a new challenge this fall: his landlord refused to renew his lease.

That sent him scrambling to find something else for himself and his wife, as well as his daughter and grandson – both of whom have lost their housing, too.

Cobbling together his own money and a loan from friends, he'll move them all this month into a three-bedroom apartment in Port Charlotte that rents for $2,300 a month.

Given the higher rent, instead of odd jobs, Anthony is now in search of steady part-time work.

That is, at least for another year until he can catch his breath and take time to track down a cheaper place to live. Anthony isn't ready to give up on the Sunshine State, though his wife is in favor of moving back north.

Lately, he's started to think she might be right.

"That's where we're going to head if we don't find anything," he said.