Dreams on hold: Season of Sharing impacts two generations hurt by Sarasota housing crisis

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

Pamela Dillon remembers when Sarasota felt like the rainbow’s end.

It was 17 years ago, and Dillon was 13, a teenager happy to trade in Vermont’s winter clothes for a bathing suit and shorts.

Her parents had relocated the family to Sarasota for new jobs and on weekends the three would explore the beaches – her father grilling while she and her mother lay on white sand under the sun.

They went to plays and the Ringling Museum and lived in a spacious two-bedroom apartment near downtown that her father, a history teacher, and mother, a receptionist, could easily afford.

“It was a nice childhood,” said Dillon, now 30.

More than that, Sarasota would be their forever home, they thought. A place Dillon’s parents would retire. A place Dillon would start her career and buy a house.

Never did Dillon imagine the rainbow’s right turn – leading to an eviction notice, a blow-up mattress, and her parents sleeping on her apartment floor.

Moving backward

Dillon graduated high school, started college courses and got a good job in senior-living management for a retirement community.

An only child who was close with her parents, she didn’t move far when at age 19 she found her first apartment, also near downtown – a large two-bedroom with a screened patio, in-unit washer and dryer – all for $761 a month.

Her parents, meanwhile, stayed at their same complex, downsizing to a one-bedroom unit.

Every year Dillon's rent leaped higher while her income covered less.

By the time she got a better-paying job last year as a restaurant and box office manager at Florida Studio Theatre, she was living in a smaller home for higher rent: $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom, 700-square-foot house.

She felt like she was moving backward, but it was still a good deal, she reasoned, especially compared to other rents, which were starting to soar.

For now, she would have to put off her dream of buying a house, she figured. But at least she and her parents were okay.

Or so she thought.

'I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.'

The private school where Dillon's father had taught was hit hard during the pandemic and closed in the spring after 20 years in operation.

By then her mother already had been on unpaid family medical leave for a health condition.

Though her father worked his regular summer retail job in a pro shop, it became their sole source of income – falling far below his teaching wages. Stretching their resources, they had fallen behind on rent. And now an eviction notice had arrived.

But that wasn’t all.

When their lease was up at the end of October, her mother told Dillon, the rent for their one-bedroom would be going up by $400 a month – from about $1,400 to $1,800.

“I knew it was going to be bad this year,” Dillon said. “I didn’t think it was going to be that bad.”

After Dillon processed the news, she sprang into action.

While her parents were professionals in their early 60s, she knew better how to navigate the Internet. There was no way she would sit by and watch them become homeless.

“They’re family,” she said. “They took care of me, and I will take care of them.”

The first order of business, she knew, was stopping that eviction. Not only would it force her parents out of their home. It could also ruin their credit and hurt their chance of finding another place to rent.

Dillon used her spare time on her days off to call and send emails to area nonprofits, asking for help on her parents’ behalf.

“My father’s a teacher. He’s a perfect candidate for someone who needs support. This is something out of his control,” she said.

Several nonprofits told her of being short-staffed and low on funds – they, too, were hit hard by the pandemic and affordable housing crisis. Ultimately, there was nothing they could do.

Dillon got halfway through a complex online application for federal pandemic Emergency Rental Assistance – uploading reams of documents – when Sarasota County announced the temporary suspension of the program.

In the middle of everything, she and her parents got sick with COVID-19, her mother briefly hospitalized.

The clock ticking, Dillon finally reached someone at JFCS of the Suncoast. It was Susan Schoengold, coordinator of Jewish Financial Assistance and Jewish Care Management – someone who gave her hope.

She told Dillon there was a fund that might be able to help her parents. It was called Season of Sharing.

'Everything in Sarasota is tight. It’s scary.'

With its local administration and fast turnaround, Season of Sharing funds came through in time to stop the eviction, covering one month’s rent in September.

Schoengold has seen countless cases of families getting knocked down through the pandemic and housing crisis – the latter compounded by Hurricane Ian.

“People are being doubly, quadrupally impacted,” she said. “You cannot even come up for air. It’s crisis after crisis.”

But in all of her work, Schoengold said she was blown away by Dillon’s devotion to her parents.

Even after the rent was paid, Dillon continued to scramble.

That’s because while the funds helped Dillon’s parents catch their breath and ward off eviction, the new rent increase for November meant they still had to go.

“They are still being forced to move out,” Dillon said.

She helped search for other rental options for her parents but found long waiting lists, little availability and nothing they could afford.

“Everything in Sarasota is tight,” she said. “It’s scary.”

That’s when Dillon decided to have her parents move in with her – buying a blow-up mattress and planning to put their belongings in storage.

“I wish I could just give them the money they need,” she said. But she, too, is living paycheck to paycheck. “I know I’m doing a lot with emotional support and finding resources, but I wish I could do more.”

She sees that the arrangement is painful for them – hurting their parental pride, the stress wearing on her mother’s health, turning her father quiet.

“We’re going to get through this together as a family,” she tells them. (Her parents declined to comment.)

The three of them know it will be crowded in her 700-square-foot rental house, Dillon said. To relieve the stress, they make jokes about being roomies again like when she was growing up.

“It’ll be nice to have mom cooking dinner for me,” Dillon said laughing. “It’ll be nice to have some family time.”

She is staying positive. Though the house is small, it comes with a yard, where they can grill – just like they did all those summers ago at the beach, she says.

And she’s not giving up hope on her parents finding a place. Her dad has a good lead on a job as a substitute teacher with the public schools. It might take a while, but maybe by next year sometime they’ll be able to save up security deposits and first-last months’ rent.

All of their dreams have taken a hit, she says – her parents’ goal to retire here. Her own long-term plans.

She loves her job, the beaches, the city. But while she’s focused on her parents at the moment, she’s not sure how long she can last through the housing crisis.

“Sarasota is my home,” she said. “But if I want to buy a house, I’ll have to move.”

See the story as it originally appeared in Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Nov. 20, 2022, here.

Photo credit: Thomas Bender, Sarasota Herald-Tribune