For Tracey Uerkwitz, what began as a promising new path two years ago was actually the start of a downward spiral.
At the time, Uerkwitz, then 50, was living with her boyfriend, Samuel Staples, and her father in her father’s Charlotte County house. Staples was employed in remodeling and maintenance at Fisherman’s Village in Punta Gorda while Uerkwitz scaled back from her service jobs to tend to a heart condition.
As Uerkwitz’s father set about to sell his home, Staples got an offer to do construction work out near Las Vegas. The couple decided to pick up stakes and head out West, and even get married while in Vegas.
But once they arrived, the pandemic hit, and the construction project shut down.
“We were stuck there for six months,” Uerkwitz said.
The two lived in a camper at the foot of a mountain, holding a small wedding that summer in a park with friends.
Staples worked odd jobs to save up money for their return, which they eventually did in early 2021.
Staples went back to work at his old job while Uerkwitz had a pacemaker installed.
But there was a big problem. They couldn’t find a place to live. In their absence, the housing marketing had exploded, with rents rapidly climbing beyond what they could afford.
“He’s working, but we couldn’t come up with first, last (month’s rent) and the deposit. The prices went up so high,” Uerkwitz said. “We just weren’t getting a break anywhere.”
The past year, the couple ended up sleeping in their Kia Soul, parking overnight in a Wal-Mart lot along with other homeless families.
“It’s safe there, and the cops already know us,” she said.
Some nights they stayed on a friend’s couch or at a hotel, but the expense would eat up much of Staples’ paychecks.
Staples eventually got part-time hours with the City of Punta Gorda working on canal maintenance, a job the couple expects to transition to full time with benefits after the requisite introductory period.
Then, several weeks ago, they found a camper they could afford to rent for $650 a month. It was located in the Punta Gorda mobile home park where her father lives in an RV. Someone referred them to the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition for help getting in the door with the required $1,300.
Once Uerkwitz called, the coalition filled out an application on their behalf for Season of Sharing, which provided $1,000, enough to move them in, the rest due the following month, Uerkwitz said.
The news came as a huge relief.
Season of Sharing: Help your neighbors in need by donating now
“After this week, it will be a lot easier,” Uerkwitz said in mid-January while sitting at a waterfront park, while Staples, suffering from health ailments, rested in the back of the Kia. They were anticipating the green light to move into the camper any day.
“We’re hoping; it’s getting cold this weekend,” she said.
Uerkwitz, who formerly worked in a metal plating factory in Indiana before following her father to Florida six years ago, added that if she had known about Season of Sharing before, she would have reached out for help months ago. It likely would have aided in getting them settled into a home that much sooner, she said.
“I’ve never been homeless in my entire life.”
While Charlotte County stands out for its effective efforts reducing chronic homelessness through its holistic Integrated Care Model, Uerkwitz’s acute case of homelessness sheds light on the ongoing challenges families face amid an affordable housing crisis and skyrocketing home prices and rents.
For the fiscal year ending in September, almost 60% of applications for Season of Sharing in the county were from those asking for help with housing costs, while most of the remaining requests were related to utilities, said Angie Matthiessen, executive director of United Way of Charlotte County, the fiscal agent for Season of Sharing there.
The vast bulk of the claims – 64% – were not related to the pandemic.
“This is not a COVID thing,” Matthiessen said.
Instead, in a region where service and low-wage jobs prevail, working families are buckling under the sharp rise in the cost of living, crippled when hit by a medical condition, job issue or housing change.
“You can’t save, you can’t put your money aside for when you do have those issues, and then something happens that is going to put you over the edge,” Matthiessen said.
In those scenarios, Season of Sharing is filling a huge need, she added.
“We would be so incredibly debilitated without the Season of Sharing assistance,” Matthiessen said.
Uerkwitz, now 52, was looking forward to moving into the camper so that she could regularly plug in the transmitter that tracks her heart and pacemaker information for her doctor, she said. The extra space will also allow more room to romp for Dobey, their cocker spaniel-terrier mix.
“He’s been with me through thick and thin,” she said.
After an arduous two years, it seems the downward spiral has at last leveled off, with Uerkwitz and her husband back on their feet and moving forward.
“Finally everything is coming together,” she said. “We got our little break.”
How to help
Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.
Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at cfsarasota.org/donors/support-season-of-sharing, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Charlotte moves from car to stable housing thanks to Season of Sharing