Unity Awards

Jennifer Fagenbaum Keeps Families at Risk of Homelessness Together

“The people we serve are hardworking and want to be successful and stable. They just don’t get paid enough to match the cost of living here.” 

By Kim Doleatto January 9, 2023 Published in the January-February 2023 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Andrea Fagenbaum

Andrea Fagenbaum

Image: David Tejeda

Amid manicured landscapes and pricey high-rise condos, it’s sometimes hard to see that many Sarasota County families need the kind of transformative assistance they receive from Jennifer Fagenbaum and volunteers at Family Promise of South Sarasota County, which helps families at risk of homelessness.

Fagenbaum is the organization’s executive director and, since her start in 2015, the nonprofit has grown exponentially. She says it helps having a person in charge who has lived through what many of her clients are going through today. As a new mom in her 20s, Fagenbaum experienced homelessness following a divorce and “couch-surfed with a two-month-old baby,” she says. “It was just a matter of months, but enough for me to never want to go through that again.”

Before joining Family Promise, Fagenbaum taught at an inner city high school and community college in Indiana, where most of the students were juniors and seniors on house arrest. In the classroom, she covered topics like child development, nutrition and budgeting. “But with 30 students in class, I couldn’t have the level of impact I wanted to,” she says. While on vacation in Sarasota, she saw a job listing for the Family Promise position and knew it was meant for her. “I had to take it,” she says.

Family Promise of South Sarasota County is a local chapter of a national nonprofit. The organization takes a different approach from traditional shelters because families stay together instead of being separated according to gender and potentially sharing space with people suffering from mental health issues and addictions. The nonprofit partners with 13 area churches. Volunteers (the current roster exceeds 1,200) prepare a room within the church for the family, make dinner, play with children and help them with homework. Families stay at each church for a week at a time, with an average of nine weeks in the program. Few families ever need to return.

When Fagenbaum started, the organization could only help two to three families at a time and, by 2017, there were between 12 and 18 families on a waiting list every month. As the nonprofit began growing, in 2018, Fagenbaum spearheaded a homelessness prevention and diversion program that was intended to interrupt imminent evictions by helping tenants pay for outstanding rent, among other methods. The need for that service went up during the pandemic, when many parents were forced to miss work to care for Covid-positive children and then often contracted the virus, too, resulting in a critical loss of work hours or jobs altogether, not to mention medical bills that piled up. “Now I can keep them from the eviction process instead of saying, ‘Go ahead and get evicted, then call me back,’” Fagenbaum says.

In 2018, Family Promise served 200 families in south county. Last year, it assisted 258 thanks to federal pandemic funding. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Ian, Fagenbaum is seeing similar trends. “With Covid, 50 percent of those seeking help had never done so before and weren’t in the system,” she says. “The same thing is happening now. In the last week, more than 50 percent of the calls are from first-time help-seekers. People are dealing with insurance and rebuilding. Renters are displaced and people’s businesses may have been shut down or destroyed so they can’t make money. Rentals are full and struggling families get pushed to the bottom of the list for landlords.”

Even aside from natural disasters, affordability is no longer in sight for many working parents, like nurses, grocery store employees, police officers and teachers. “Even when there isn’t a crisis, 800 to 1,000 students in Sarasota County schools are identified as homeless,” Fagenbaum says.

The nonprofit recently purchased 12 affordable workforce housing units in Venice, with rents capped at $800 a month. They now house a police officer, a teacher and a nurse, among others.

“I wish more people understood this could be any one of us,” Fagenbaum says. “The people we serve are hardworking and want to be successful and stable. They just don’t get paid enough to match the cost of living here.” 

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