Sarasota-Manatee seniors forced back to work by the housing crisis




  • In Business
  • 2022-09-24 09:00:34Z
  • By Herald-Tribune
Rick English, 73, was living in his car at one point and now a motel.
Rick English, 73, was living in his car at one point and now a motel.  

On early weekday mornings, as sunlight filters through the oaks and as walkers start hitting the trails, Rick English is at his post at Bradenton's G.T. Bray Park.

He tidies the restrooms, edges the sports fields and rides the mower out over the grass.

"I'm proud of the fact I help make G.T. Bray beautiful," English says.

But despite the peaceful setting and the pride that English takes in his work, this is not the way he had envisioned his retirement playing out.

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At age 73 - eight years after stepping back from a decades-long career as an electronics specialist - English recently found himself living in his truck, and once more in search of a job.

Among his peers, he is not alone.

Countless area seniors and many more nationwide are heading back to the workforce - the local trend pushed in large part by skyrocketing rents, rising expenses and a crisis in affordable housing.

"They are 69, 70 and 72. They were thinking these would be their golden years," said Ola Medrzycki, Friendship at Home Manager for the Senior Friendship Centers in Sarasota County. "But now they have to go back to work."

Seniors on fixed incomes especially are impacted by rent increases of $100 to $500 a month, she said. It's an enormous chunk of their budgets, she added, leaving them grasping for ways to make ends meet.

Some retirees are picking up shifts at local grocery stores and hardware chains. Others work the registers at retail gift shops. For many, the long hours on their feet can exacerbate health problems, she said.

"You are trying to help these people, but how are you going to help them?" she said. "You cannot say don't worry. I think we all have to be worried right now."

A return to paradise

Rick English, 73, had to come out of retirement.
Rick English, 73, had to come out of retirement.  

Since living in the area in his early 20s after serving in the Army, English dreamed of coming back to Sarasota or Bradenton.

"I fell in love with the place," he said of the weather and way of life in Manatee and Sarasota counties, an area he thought of as a kind of paradise. In the 1990s, he got a job with Nokia and moved to Florida's east coast, then later relocated to Arkansas.

But always in the back of his mind was a desire to return to Sarasota.

Though none of his employers ever offered a pension, he had his Social Security income. He'd live modestly but comfortably, he figured as he packed up his truck for the drive south.

Once here, English encountered rents for almost twice the amount he expected. Worse still, landlords were asking for paystubs totaling three times the rent - amounts far exceeding his monthly Social Security income.

"Every single solitary apartment complex in these two counties - that is what they rule by," English said.

English lived in his truck until his legs swelled with edema and he was forced to go to a motel.

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Exhausting his savings and trying various agencies, he finally turned to CareerSource Suncoast. Coaches there helped him get a job with the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department, which hired him in July as a parks maintenance technician.

English is grateful to both agencies. But the social circumstances confronting seniors and many workers the last several decades leave him upset - as if the country is letting them down.

"I keep thinking this is wrong. I worked hard, and I mean hard, at every job I ever did all my life. I wasn't always the best, but I worked hard at it," he said. "I don't understand why I can't find something reasonable down here."

How did I get here?

English's precarious retirement is shared by millions of seniors nationwide.

Recent data from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics depict rising levels of employment among older Americans, reports show. It's a trend predicted to balloon in years ahead as Baby Boomers age, with the number of workers 75 and older expected to double by 2030, according to federal labor reports.

Local and national experts point to several factors behind the trend. Some are connected to greater life expectancy, while others include boredom and what studies have found to be an epidemic of loneliness among older adults.

But skyrocketing housing costs play a major role, especially for those living mostly on Social Security, local caseworkers say. And more retirees are doing just that, due to changes in the U.S. economy.

Unlike earlier waves of retirees leaving unionized jobs with pensions, about half of Floridians age 65 and older now count on Social Security as a primary source of income, according to the AARP.

Recognizing the growing role of aging Americans in the workforce, the federal government annually terms the last full week in September as National Employ Older Workers Week - part of a larger program that also provides job skills training to people 55 and up.

"I think they are just like, 'I don't even know how I got here,'" said Jamie Gossett, a Disabled Veteran Outreach Program specialist at CareerSource Suncoast, a key local resource helping retirees re-enter the workplace.

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"Honestly, it's kind of a crisis in my world because it's very difficult to have someone in their 70s looking for work. That is just very hard to digest," she said.

Many are intimidated by their lack of computer and technology skills, Gossett said. Others no longer drive, or they have health concerns that limit their physical abilities or time spent on their feet.

Gossett and other career coaches help them prepare resumes, explore interests and translate previous career skills into new endeavors.

Hard workers

Sharon Pittenger of Palmetto, loves working at Goodwill.
Sharon Pittenger of Palmetto, loves working at Goodwill.  

Whatever their computer skills, say case managers, seniors have a major advantage valued by employers.

"They have an amazing work ethic, that generation," said Margie Genter, vice president of mission services at Goodwill Manasota

The nonprofit employs 137 people age 65 and older at many of its 44 sites in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

While many retirees have returned to the workforce because of rising housing costs and other financial reasons, some also came back wanting to escape boredom and isolation, Genter said.

Sharon Pittenger, 68 - a former flying trapeze artist who married into a circus family -worked for long periods of her life as a nail technician and preschool teacher between raising three daughters in Sarasota.

More recently, she held a part-time job in a doctor's office while living with and taking care of her ailing mother. But when her mother passed away last year and she had to sell the house to split proceeds with siblings, Pittinger was soon scrambling for a place to live.

Prices for other homes in the mobile home park had soared.

"Thirty thousand dollar houses were selling for $230,000," she said. At other mobile home parks she scoured throughout the area, it was the lot rents that made her jaw drop - costing up to $1,200 a month.

Affordable housing: Great demand for Sarasota workforce housing at Lofts on Lemon as applications open

"I was shocked," she said. "I had to go to Palmetto to find something I could afford."

While her inheritance helped her buy a home in a Palmetto park, the monthly lot rent of $700 left it hard for her to make ends meet.

"Twice a week I'm having tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches," she said.

Instead of retiring, she searched for more hours and a full-time job. That's when she spotted an open position at Goodwill Manasota - as a sorter at a retail store in Lakewood Ranch.

Sharon Pittenger of Palmetto, loves working at Goodwill.
Sharon Pittenger of Palmetto, loves working at Goodwill.  

In the job, she found so much more. Not only did Goodwill provide her with a life coach, grief counselor, full benefits and a retirement savings plan, the job also helped her rebuild a social life and support system that had frayed in the seven years she was consumed with caring for her mother.

"I was feeling very lonesome," she said of her life before the job. "I've really landed an extended family, truly."

Still, for some seniors like English - who remains in a motel, still searching for an apartment - working late in life is a delicate balancing act, hinging on one's health.

With Social Security failing to keep up with rising housing costs, he shudders to think what will happen if his health gives out, when he's too frail to work. How will he pay for his room then?

"I'll be back to being homeless," he said. "If I can't continue to work, I'm hoping I die and don't have to be faced with that. There is no light at the end of the tunnel."

Sarasota-Manatee employment resources for older people

CareerSource Suncoast has six locations in Sarasota and Manatee counties. For more information: visit careersourcesuncoast.com or call (941) 358-4200.

AARP Foundation Senior Community Service Employment Program, or SCSEP, is located at the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center in Sarasota. For more information, call (941) 366-9039.

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 samrhein@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota, Manatee County seniors head back to work to afford housing

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