VENICE — Women United, an affinity organization under the United Way of South Sarasota County umbrella, held its inaugural dinner Wednesday.

The members left with a pin, a portfolio and the news that UWSSC will be relocating.

President and CEO Barbara Cruz said a $130,000 grant from the Selby Foundation will be used to move to 4242 South Tamiami Trail, to space formerly occupied by Wells Fargo investment advisers.

And another grant, from the Barancik Foundation, will fund a full-service Gulfcoast Legal Services office in the 6,500-square-foot-space, she said.

The presence of attorneys for low-income residents ties in with the focus of the local Women United group — preventing evictions when a moratorium on them expires.

A hold imposed by an order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lapses on June 30. The state doesn’t have its own moratorium in place.

More than 500 eviction suits are pending in the county, Cruz said.

“We know that there will be a tsunami of evictions in Sarasota County” when the moratorium expires, she said.

In a video played at the dinner, Jennifer Fagenbaum, executive director of Family Promise of South Sarasota County, said that half or more of the requests her agency received for help last year came from people who had never struggled financially before.

Aid for the homeless isn’t available to them as long as they’re sleeping somewhere that qualifies as housing, she said.

In another video, Chris Johnson, CEO of Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, said that resources often have limited reach because of income qualifications that can’t be met by families that are “asset limited and income constrained, but employed” — a status referred to by the shorthand “ALICE.”

ALICE families live on the edge of poverty, he said, and 74% of them are led by a single female head of household.

There were also two success stories that the members hope to create more of.

One was told on tape by Ray Gomes, a young man who struggled after his parents split up when he was young but persevered through difficulties that led to suicidal thoughts until he found a life coach who believed him.

He’s now an entrepreneur, a top salesman for Cutco, a kitchen products company, and a life coach himself.

Members and guests also heard from Judy Coleman, Cruz’ sister, who spoke of raising her son in a rundown house with an abusive, alcoholic husband who told her, “If I can’t have you, nobody else will.”

She was helping to care for her aging father and didn’t have the resources to leave.

Then, she said, “I met Dave Waring. Best thing ever.”

Waring, chair of the UWSSC board and a longtime Publix manager, helped her find a part-time job with the company. That helped her find the strength to change her life, she said.

“I prayed, I stood up and I said ‘It ends today,’” she said.

She told her husband she wanted a divorce.

She moved out, though it was just across the street. Then that house burned down, she said.

But today she and her son live in a two-bedroom apartment in Venice, where she said she has always wanted to live.

“It’s not much, but it’s beautiful,” she said.

That’s the ending Women United want to provide for as many people as possible.

“We’re going to be nothing short of fierce in how we do it,” Cruz said.


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