October 20, 2016 | By Scott Mauro
There is a little more than a week left to help support the UCF United Way Campaign and the University’s goal of raising $200,000 in support of local charities. No one ever thinks they will find themselves in a position of need, but it can happen to anyone. Take Sherlann Phillips, for example. This single mother of two never thought she would be homeless.
Sherlann moved to the United States in 2000 from Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean island just northwest of the South American country of Venezuela. She lived in the New York borough of Brooklyn with her husband and was working as a nursing assistant. She was working toward her dream of becoming a nurse when her marriage became abusive, “It wasn’t comfortable or healthy for me or my sons anymore. I had to come up with a plan which was to move away from it all.” So last summer, she packed everything she had to her name in a small Nissan Versa and moved her 10 and 12-year-old sons to Kissimmee, Florida in the hopes of making her dreams come true. Sherlann admits starting over wasn’t easy, “I thought I would get a job faster. But that didn’t happen,” she said.
She and her boys were living week-to-week in a small motel. Within a month, the little nest egg Sherlann arrived in Central Florida with was running out. Desperate, she contacted Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida after researching the organization online. For more than 25 years the Coalition has provided support services for homeless men, women and children and she thought it was her last chance to stay here.
“I sent an email (to the Coalition) and tried to put as much information in it as possible and someone responded to me, but they didn’t have room at that time. So I was there (in Kissimmee) hanging on by a thread, until I actually ran out of money.” With no support system here in the U.S. to turn to, Sherlann was faced with the toughest decision of her life; she would have to drive back to New York and ask the man she never wanted to see again for help.
She describes the 1,100 mile trip up the East Coast as torture, “We were all in my car, and it was really hard for me to conceal (from my boys) what was going on. You know it was sad times. They stayed up with me. I made the trip in one night, because we didn’t have money to get a hotel. We didn’t have that luxury at all. And I was like driving, crying, thinking, ‘what am I going to do!’ It was really rough.”
Sherlann never had to ask for help though, because the call she had been waiting weeks for finally came just as she was crossing the border to New York. Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida had a spot waiting for Sherlann.
“I begged my case manager, I actually begged her, to hold a room for me. That was a Thursday I think, and she said she’ll hold it for me until Monday.” Sherlann decided she could not wait. She turned around with her two boys and drove back in one night. The anxiety of the drive the night before was replaced with anticipation of finally being able to jump start her family plan.
As happy as she was to be placed at the Coalition, there was a reality to their situation she wasn’t quite prepared for. “I didn’t ever think I was going to end up homeless. It was really rough.” Sharing close quarters with strangers lead to some sleepless and tearful nights for her boys and left Sherlann wondering to herself, “How did I get here?”
Determined to turn things around for her family, she hit the ground running in search of employment. “I used to stay up at night even with the lights off. I was filling out applications. I went to every job fair around.”
Sherlann’s determination wasn’t the only thing working in her favor. She had some help from one of the Coalition’s on-site partners, Goodwill Industries. Goodwill Industries doesn’t find jobs for people, but helps them with the skills to go and find the job. That assistance paid off and Sherlann received a call from Lynx Transit. She began work as a driver for Access Lynx, which provides driving services for people with disabilities and other limitations. That job helped Sherlann get on her feet again. “You know, I set goals and I’m starting to achieve them. And it feels good to be working and doing something constructive with my life, because I’m trying to get myself together so I can start school in January.”
*This story first appeared in UCF Today.