There were nights when Cierra Harris sat awake, cramped in the front of her SUV.
Every few minutes she would look over her shoulder, reassured by the sight of her four children sleeping peacefully under blankets atop the turned-down seats.
Struggling to get comfortable, her mind raced, knowing the sun would be up in a few hours, when she’d have to get them ready for school and make herself presentable for work.
Behind that loomed questions that haunted her days: Where would they sleep that night? How could she afford a place for them all? When would this end?
Focused on survival, Harris could barely register how she got here – a 32-year-old professional woman, separated from her husband and homeless with her kids.
One thing she knew for certain.
“I can’t live like this,” she thought. No matter what it took, she would create stability for her children.
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Embarrassed and in need of help
Harris prided herself on being a survivor.
Born in Washington D.C. and raised in Venice, Harris was brought up in a religious, Catholic family.
By her late 20s, the mother of three toddlers – Takai, Tazeon and Tavias – she had overcome abuse throughout her life, including domestic violence. Local nonprofit agencies invited her to speak to other women about her experiences, as a source of inspiration.
For years a stay-at-home mom, by the time her daughter, Cariah, was born two years ago, she decided to go back to school. With a career, she thought, she could always be self-sufficient and be a good example for her kids.
She obtained an associate’s degree in applied science and began classes toward a bachelor’s in business management. Long wanting to work with kids, she took a dream job at a daycare center, climbing her way up to the top post as director – juggling its stressful demands along with the many in her own home.
Meanwhile, she and her husband saved money, sometimes living with relatives, hoping to buy a house – though prices were soaring beyond their reach.
Then this fall, their marriage began to unravel amid personal turmoil.
In early November, Harris resolved to get her children out of a tumultuous climate.
“I left with the kids and $20 in my pocket,” she said.
At first they moved between homes of friends and relatives, taking turns on different people’s couches.
Some nights they stayed at a hotel – the $112 nightly fee eating a huge chunk of her paycheck. Saving for an apartment felt impossible.
As Harris frantically searched apartment complexes, she found rents for two-bedroom apartments going for $2,000 a month. With her salary and expenses – food, car payments, insurance and other bills – it was a price she could not afford. Nor did she have the thousands of dollars needed for a deposit plus first and last months’ rents in order to move in.
Harris called affordable housing complexes and put her name on dozens of waiting lists.
Meanwhile, embarrassed at the imposition on family and friends and unable to crash with them long-term, Harris fell back in desperation on her SUV.
After school and a dinner of fast food or a homemade meal she cooked at the homes of friends, she would find a safe place to park.
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With all of their personal items in the back cargo space of the SUV, she created a system – folding school clothes and organizing them into bins for the boys, now 8, 7 and 6. She tucked toothbrushes into pockets of the suitcases.
Before bedtime, she turned down the seats and set out the blankets for the boys, Cariah often staying close by her side until it was time to sleep.
On cold nights, Harris left the engine running to turn on the heat, consuming more gas, which could cost her $80 a week.
Sometimes she awoke with major cramps in her legs.
Her life was a mess, she would think, knowing that the holidays were bearing down on them. What type of Christmas could she give the kids?
The most important thing, she kept telling herself, was getting them onto solid ground.
“There’s nothing else I have to do but give them a stable environment,” she thought. She had made it through so much already, she reminded herself. She had pulled herself out of abusive relationships and put herself through school.
“This is just another thing I will get out of,” she thought, praying for help to find a way.
In the mornings, Harris woke the kids to help them dress. She dropped off the boys at school and headed with Cariah to the daycare center.
“I still showed up for work every day,” she said.
She put on a happy face for the client parents and kids – none of them aware of the anguish behind it.
One morning she got a text from a counselor at her sons’ school. One of her boys had told a teacher about a rough night sleeping in the SUV.
“If there is anything you need, please reach out,” the message read.
Harris was shaken. This situation was becoming unbearable for the kids. She had to do something drastic – and soon. But she was down to her last dollar, with no money to buy diapers or food, and payday was more than a week away.
When she got to school to pick up the boys, there was something waiting for her:
Gift cards to Wal-Mart, purchased by the women in the front office.
“I cried that day because I literally didn’t know how I was going to do anything,” she said.
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Harris felt a shift inside her. Something had to give. She couldn’t save for an apartment. She couldn’t go back to her husband. She wanted a healthier life for her kids.
Harris was praying for signs on how to seize a new path. And at last, they began to appear.
'This is a fresh start. Make it count.'
First, she decided, she had to switch jobs. She loved her work, but the pay was too low to support her children on her own.
“Sometimes you have to make yourself uncomfortable to make yourself comfortable,” said a friend, who told her about a job opening at PGT Custom Windows & Doors. It paid better, and the hours were more flexible. Harris put in an application and got an interview.
Around the same time, in late November, she swallowed her pride. She had accomplished a lot in her life. She didn’t like imposing on others. But now she was homeless with her kids. And they needed her to do more. That included, she thought, asking for help.
Harris had heard of Family Promise of South Sarasota County, but never thought she would have to contact the nonprofit for herself.
Initially, the agency helped with gift cards and toiletries from their pantry, but then a space opened in its Bridge Housing Shelter Program. The program usually ran 60 to 90 days. It would provide a safe and stable environment for her family and Harris could save money for an apartment. A case manager asked if she was interested.
“Absolutely,” Harris said. “I will do whatever I need to do.”
By the time Harris and the children settled into their room, more help arrived.
Family Promise got a phone call from one of the income-based apartment complexes it deals with in Venice. A three-bedroom apartment was coming available in mid-December. Rent was $918. Did they have a family in need?
Harris couldn’t believe her ears when she heard the news from Marie Mead, Family Promise’s Bridge Housing coordinator.
But there were two challenges: the complex required first and last months’ rents before a tenant could move in. Season of Sharing would cover one payment. And Family Promise, through the Bridge program, would cover the other.
Harris, while working full time, committed to completing all the program’s financial counseling and case management requirements in 45 days. She got the green light to move in by late December.
“I remember thinking, ‘God is good,’” she said.
For the agency’s case managers, Harris made an impact.
“I can’t say enough about her,” said Shannon Nordquist, formerly an Open Doors Family Service Coordinator at Family Promise and now a development associate. “She was just so gracious and humble and motivated.”
Harris’ case is a classic example, she added, of the power of local programs like Family Promise and Season of Sharing to help working families through hardship to get back on their feet.
“It was not only just impeccable timing,” Nordquist said. “It really epitomizes what can happen when you have a motivated client and excellent services to empower them. It just speaks to the beauty of everything that both programs have to offer.”
On December 30 – after Family Promise provided gifts for the kids to unwrap on Christmas – she and the kids moved into their new home in time for the New Year.
Harris put all their belongings down in a pile on what was supposed to be the dining room floor. After cramped hotels and the SUV, the place seemed massive. The three boys raced to check out what would be their bedroom. Cariah, now 2, clung to her side, not ready to enter hers – the first she would have all to herself.
Harris took a deep breath, not sure how she would furnish it all.
“Okay, Cierra,” she told herself. “This is a fresh start. Make it count.”
'Now I have a place to come home to'
On an early January afternoon, Harris sat on a sofa in her living room.
Cariah napped in her bedroom while the boys tried to play quietly in theirs. Tavias peaked out, eager to show the new watch he got for Christmas.
In the end, a private donor – someone Harris called “another guardian angel” – stepped forward to help outfit the apartment with couches, end tables, beds and a dining room table and chairs.
“I couldn’t give just one word to signify what this has done for my family,” Harris said about the past few months.
“They say it takes a village,” she added, referring to the popular proverb. “In this village, everyone has really stepped up to help me.”
In the living room, several pieces of wall art donated from Family Promise rested on the floor, waiting to be hung. There was one in particular that spoke to Harris.
“Before you were born, I set you apart,” it read, quoting Jeremiah 1:15.
“I didn’t leave without having that one for my wall,” she said. “I do believe I didn’t make it out of this situation without God.”
Family Promise and Season of Sharing helped get her in the door, she said. Now, she added, it’s her job to keep things afloat. She’s left humbled by her recent situation, also finding through it a strength she didn’t know she had.
Looking ahead, she hopes to save money, buy a house, finish her bachelor’s degree.
But for the moment, her attention is trained on cementing her family's new stability – all that she had hoped for those sleepless nights in the SUV.
“Seven weeks ago I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep the next night,” she said. “Now I have a place to come home to.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Season of Sharing helps Sarasota mom 4 kids move from SUV to apartment