Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune and written by Opinions Editor Barbara Peters Smith.
Now in its 20th year, Season of Sharing evolved as an efficient response to homelessness and need.
More than two decades ago, leaders of the Herald-Tribune looked for a way to make the surging national tide of homelessness more tangible and understandable, while also giving readers a role in possible local solutions.
The newsroom embarked on a series under the label of “Unsheltered Lives,” telling the stories of families and individuals who had found themselves living in cars, shelters, motels, and makeshift campsites. And the entire media company mobilized behind an effort that would become an annual campaign for donations known as Season of Sharing.
Now in its 20th year, the program has evolved into an efficient, comprehensive year-round network of giving and receiving that covers a four-county area, in concert with government agencies, nonprofit social agencies, and foundations.
At the same time, the communities of Southwest Florida have struggled, debated, and finally come together in an impressive collaboration that is starting to solidify a systematic approach to the multitude of ills that lead to distinct varieties of homelessness — from hollow-eyed young men toting everything they own in a backpack, to families with children who attend school after spending the night on someone’s sofa.
“It’s not a Sarasota problem; it’s a national issue,” says Salvation Army area commander Major Charles Whiten. “You can never get beyond the fact that we’re dealing with human beings. They’re all individuals with unique needs and challenges. You have to get to know someone to walk along beside them.”
In fact, a recent resurgence of street people in downtown Sarasota — and an almost immediate reaction among many of the partners involved in this walk — can be seen as evidence that the community-wide response is working.
So much hope
The Herald-Tribune’s very first Season of Sharing story, in November 2000, was about a little girl taunted by schoolmates because she lived with her mother and brother at a Salvation Army shelter. It began with this sentence: “Alisia Lawson stepped off the school bus so full of tears they dripped from her chin.”
The writer, Jill Barton — now a professor of legal writing at the University of Miami School of Law — vividly remembers spending hours at the shelter with Alisia’s family.
“The first stories about this 11-year-old and her mother came out Thanksgiving weekend, and when I arrived back to work Monday, my voicemail was full — with messages from people who wanted to help,” Barton recalls. “It was thrilling to see the community respond enthusiastically to a problem that we identified and described on the newspaper’s pages. I had so much hope for this 11-year-old and her family.”
Barton believes readers were moved by the idea of a child having to navigate from a precarious home life to the safety of a classroom, her hardships invisible to the adults around her. Donations poured in to the publisher’s office, in large and small amounts.
“Sadly, those stories didn’t offer an easy answer for the 11-year-old and her family,” Barton continues. A year later, Alisia’s mother was prosecuted for child neglect, and the family was separated. The newspaper reported this story as well and followed the girl’s progress through a series of foster homes.
“It’s very easy to think that we can raise money and direct it at solving a problem, and that’s going to fix it,” Barton observes. “But with people suffering through so much, with so many complicated challenges, we need more than just money to solve the problem of homelessness. We need to show empathy and support throughout the year for people who are working to solve this issue.”
So the Season of Sharing mission was refined. From the beginning, some community members had argued that the paper’s coverage and the annual collection should focus on eradicating the causes of homelessness — mental illness, childhood trauma, addiction, economic swings, military service, just to name a few. Publisher Diane McFarlin felt this was too heavy and complicated a lift. She believed the newspaper’s initiative had to remain focused and consistent, assuring readers that their sympathies and dollars wouldn’t go to waste.
Season of Sharing found its niche in a vast system, as a concerted effort to help avoid homelessness before it had a chance to happen — to replace the flat tire, keep the lights on, put down the deposit on a home with enough beds for everybody — to head off those mundane and heartbreaking disasters that push families over the edge from having to not having.
Now, every day of the year, case workers out in the field learn of a need, apply for the funds, and rush that emergency-response money to where it’s needed most.
The children featured in those first experimental stories are now adults. That first campaign brought in more than $143,000 in contributions. For the last six years, annual donations have exceeded $2 million. Just over a thousand individuals gave in that first year; now three times that many take the time and find the money to lighten others’ loads, while counting their own blessings.
None of this happened in isolation. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County, The Patterson Foundation, and the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation have been loyal supporters, along with dozens of government and nonprofit agencies and media partners who help to spread the word. At the same time, this community’s answers to the slow-motion devastation of homelessness have become more sophisticated, dividing and even conquering some of the many insidious causes of poverty and despair.
That carefully forged cooperation was tested this fall when about two dozen new faces appeared suddenly on the streets of downtown Sarasota. At Resurrection House, the daytime services center on Kumquat Court, the lunch crowd swelled from 75 people a day to 100, says executive director Bill Wilson. The spike in demand lasted for about two weeks, while homelessness specialists conferred and found solutions.
Years ago, such an influx might have been noted, deplored, and largely ignored. But social service workers and city officials quickly traced the problem to its source: A policy change at the Salvation Army shelter in Manatee County had driven some individuals south. For Chris Johnson, the new CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End homelessness, this incident underscored the wisdom of regional solutions.
“Sometimes one move in the system makes a wave,” Johnson says. “And one person doesn’t realize the power of that wave.”
Major Juan Guadalupe, who leads the Salvation Army in Manatee County, says the difficulty was mostly one of perception — with a rule change leading clients to conclude that the shelter had closed.
“The very simple thing we did was to change the number of beds available for shelter nights” from 40 to 25, Guadalupe says. “We opened more beds for people who really wanted to be able to get into our programs and get on their feet later on.”
This focus on housing people instead of merely helping them temporarily is in keeping with the Continuum of Care approach adopted in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Johnson of the Suncoast Partnership credits this coordinated entry program — where each person coming into the system is identified and steered toward services — with a 30% reduction in the homeless population.
Resurrection House, which observed its 30th anniversary in October, is a case in point. Founded by a group of downtown congregations after a woman named Joy was discovered living on the Church of the Redeemer grounds, it was conceived simply as a day shelter for those who spent their nights outdoors or at the Salvation Army. Clients could take a shower, receive mail, have their clothes laundered, and maybe eat a day-old pastry, with few questions asked.
Now, Wilson says, Resurrection House is also a triage center, networking with other agencies that have the expertise and resources to help families or veterans or elders down on their luck.
“I think a lot of the homeless have been broad-brushed,” he says. “There are places that are specializing in segments of the homeless population, and they’re causing a shrinkage.”
Paying it forward
This heightened expertise has also been harnessed year-round, to distribute Season of Sharing funds where they can be most effective. Each individual gift of up to $1,000 can help head off the eviction or downward spiral that can put local residents on the street.
“I think SOS is just such an elegant way of helping other folks in our community,” said Matthew Sauer, the Herald-Tribune’s executive editor and general manager. He cites the movie “Pay it Forward” — “one little boy with an idea how he could help people in a way that they couldn’t help themselves, and with only one requirement for them: that they do the same thing for a number of other people, perpetuating the kindness.
“We’ve seen that play out with Season of Sharing, with people who previously have been helped, then reach deep into their pockets and they pay it forward. They make a donation — usually a small one, but big for them — because they have become believers. That, to me is the beauty of Season of Sharing: It not only helps people avoid homelessness, but it gets them in the spirit of helping others who are threatened. There’s really nothing else quite like it.”
Roxie Jerde, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, oversees the four-county collection and distribution process that helps the money meet the need.
“Caring for our community is part of our region’s unique and generous culture,” she says. “For 20 years, Season of Sharing has encouraged collaboration across sectors and empowered countless neighbors to help neighbors in need. Together, we can create a ripple effect of kindness and accomplish larger-than-life challenges in more meaningful ways, as one shared community.”
Barton, the former Herald-Tribune reporter who wrote that first story, says she is pleased to learn that the tradition lives on.
“The idea behind Season of Sharing was one that came from a place of caring,” Barton says. “In the end, it showed how deeply people in the Sarasota area care for others, and I hope it’s an idea that can continue to grow.”
How to help
The Season of Sharing fund was created in 2000 as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. The goal is to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties. Every dollar donated goes to people in need. There are no administrative fees and no red tape. Funds may be used for rental assistance, utility bills, childcare and other expenses needed to help families get back on their feet.
Donations to the Season of Sharing fund may be made online at cfsarasota.org, 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 941-556-2399 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible. To read stories about families helped by Season of Sharing, go to the Herald-Tribune Season of Sharing webpage.