Kelly Halvey isn’t sure how she got here.
Not here as in Florida. No, that move to Sarasota 18 years ago was an easy and heartfelt one – following her parents in their retirement to the state after her father’s cancer diagnosis. From that point forward, she’d cared for them both, through her father’s death in 2012, and her mother’s a year ago – all the while tending to her own medical needs and disability springing from rheumatoid arthritis.
Instead, by here she means a different kind of landscape in which she now finds herself at age 61 – devastated emotionally from the unexpected passing of her mother, and financially as well – her electric service turned off earlier this year and past due rent threatening the roof over her head.
“You never know when it’s going to happen to you,” Halvey said.
There was a time when Halvey had big plans for her life. After a childhood in Ohio, she’d studied business and worked in finance before taking steps to enter graduate school at Columbia University in New York, aspiring to specialize in the study of brain injuries, inspired by a friend with epilepsy.
But in the mid-1990s, her plans were derailed after a series of botched surgeries on her legs connected to severe arthritis and bone malalignment – which developed into degenerative and rheumatoid arthritis. A former athlete, she began to suffer from debilitating pain and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, her conditions forcing her to get around with the assistance of a cane, wheelchair or crutches.
“My whole life was torn away at the age of 34,” she said.
For years, she crisscrossed the country, visiting specialists in the hopes that one could help restore her health. Eventually a successful surgery did make matters improve slightly. But Halvey was left for most of that time relying on disability payments to get by.
After relocating to Florida in 2003 to help her parents, she contended with more of her own joint replacements and surgeries between caring for them full time. Her father, a retired engineer, was battling cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, while her mother, a retired property manager, suffered with diabetes and eventually underwent open-heart surgery.
For Halvey – juggling medical appointments for all three of them and her parents’ round-the-clock care – there was little opportunity for a social life beyond weekly church services.
“Your life is consumed,” she said.
Nor was there a chance to set money aside, as she paid for out-of-pocket medical expenses and equipment not covered by insurance – including once maxing out a credit card for exploratory treatments and special drops for her father’s eye condition.
“You can’t let your parents deteriorate,” she said, adding that she went about 10 years without buying new clothes. “That’s why I never had money for myself.”
Then, soon after her father’s death in 2012, her mother was hospitalized with MRSA – or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria resistant to many antibiotics.
“I just lost my father, and within a couple weeks, my mother was diagnosed with this,” she said.
After her mother’s surgery, she drove her to Venice every day for five months for intravenous treatments.
Soon after, Halvey and her mother moved within Sarasota into a two-bedroom apartment.
They were close, as much mother-and-daughter as confidants and friends. To Halvey, her mother was her whole world. Financially, they afforded what was initially $700 in monthly rent between her mother’s retirement income and Halvey’s disability benefits.
But in late September, 2020, her mother was hospitalized with an infection that led to sepsis. Doctors told Halvey her mother would not recover.
Halvey was in disbelief, unable to process the prognosis. For two weeks while her mother was in hospice care, Halvey washed her hair, read the Bible to her and wrote her poems.
And then her mother was gone.
“My mom was my best friend,” Halvey said breaking down on a recent morning, the pain and trauma of her mother’s unexpected death still raw a year later, her world turned upside down.
“She was the only support system I had,” she said. “I lost it all.”
On top of the emotional devastation of losing her mother, the weight of Halvey’s finances soon bore down on her as well.
Heading into 2021 – the household income consisting only of her disability payments – she now faced making on her own the rent that had climbed through the years to $1,300 a month. Plus utilities.
In the spring of 2021, numb with grief, Halvey fell behind on the rent and electricity – which was turned off, ruining the food she’d just bought and placed in her refrigerator.
Facing homelessness, she couldn’t even stay in her car – forced to sell the Toyota Camry the year before when she couldn’t afford its needed repairs.
“You feel alone and inadequate,” she said. “Your life is falling apart on you. You didn’t envision this when you’re young. You try to get a degree and do the right thing and take care of your parents so that this doesn’t happen to you.”
Not accustomed to approaching agencies for help, she was finally forced to do so, eventually referred to the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of the Suncoast Inc., or JFCS, a Sarasota nonprofit that delivers mental health and human services on a non-denominational basis.
JFCS was able to help Halvey apply for Season of Sharing assistance, which paid $1,745 to catch her up on rent, while a private donor paid her past-due electric bills, getting the service turned back on within hours.
Season of Sharing:Help your neighbors in need by donating now
For Susan Schoengold, coordinator of JFCS’s Jewish Financial Assistance and Jewish Care Management, Halvey’s case is, unfortunately, very common, she said.
“These are the phone calls that I’m getting every day,” Schoengold said. “The elderly and the disabled are getting priced out of the market. They can’t live in Sarasota, and they can’t live in Bradenton.”
Given the area’s skyrocketing rents, even small, one-bedroom apartments are too expensive anymore for many people on fixed incomes – a good number of whom don’t have family nearby or willing to help, Schoengold added.
Halvey was grateful for the assistance, which allowed her to get caught up, though her budget remains very tight, she said on a recent morning sitting outside in a recreation area of her apartment complex. She fears her rent might be raised again when her lease comes up for renewal next year. She also worries about her chances of finding a different apartment for herself someplace else for equal or less than what she’s currently paying – and something close to public transportation.
Without a car, the extra walking and standing for buses has made her legs worse. She only goes out to go to the store when it’s absolutely necessary, usually when she’s running low on milk or food.
“I always had a car my whole life,” she said.
Reflecting on her life, Halvey expressed feeling shell-shocked by the last several decades grappling with her own health problems and caring for her sick parents – then dealing with her mother’s death.
Though this was not the life she envisioned for herself, she hopes her story helps others going through trying times to understand that they are not alone.
“I want people to know that if you’re going through a bad experience, socially it’s a stigma, but psychologically, you’re in a fog, you’re in shock,” she said. Especially amid the area’s soaring housing costs, she imagines so many just a crisis away from being out on the street.
“It’s life circumstances. It can happen to anyone. You can be educated. It has nothing to do with that,” she said. “If we didn’t have these agencies, the population of the homeless would be skyrocketing.”
Aside from their assistance, she added that she believes what helps her through these tough times more than anything is the grace of God and her Christian faith in Jesus Christ.
“He is my foundation. He is my rock.”
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 protected]