The City and County commissions are working toward a November session to discuss chronic homelessness in the community, and the county board wants to hear beforehand from the Pinellas County sheriff about operating the Safe Harbor shelter
For the first time since June 2014, the Sarasota City Commission has agreed to a joint session with the Sarasota County Commission to discuss how best to handle the issue of chronic homelessness in the community.
County staff is hoping to host the session on Nov. 5 or 6.
However, City Manager Tom Barwin did not agree to a County Commission proposal calling for Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri, whose department operates the Safe Harbor homeless shelter in Clearwater, to address both boards at that session, County Administrator Tom Harmer told his board on Sept. 9.
At the direction of the county board, staff sent a letter to the city on July 1, seeking renewed discussion of homelessness in Sarasota County. The two boards reached an impasse last year, with city commissioners expressing more interest in a “Housing First” initiative and opposing a come-as-you-are shelter in the city limits. County board members continued to support the view of Robert Marbut, the Texas-based consultant the two local governments hired in 2013, which called for a shelter closest to where the majority of the homeless live. County statistics reported in the summer of 2014 showed 78 percent of all the homeless people in the county had lived in the city limits for more than a year. The city and county boards last met together on the topic on June 23, 2014.
During the County Commission’s Sept. 8 regular meeting, Harmer pointed out that the board had received Mayor Willie Shaw’s Aug. 19 acceptance of the county’s offer for another joint meeting “to discuss the next steps.”
Shaw added, “This meeting should have no pre-conditions on either side other than a good faith desire to reach agreement to collaborate on a strategic response to this challenge.”
Harmer told the county commissioners he could work with Barwin to try to schedule the session on Nov. 5 or Nov. 6 or on possible dates in December.
“”November,” Commissioner Christine Robinson replied. “Sooner.”
In ensuing discussion about items for the agenda, Robinson noted that when the two boards had met on the issue in the past, comments from members of the public, as well as the board discussions themselves, had dominated the sessions. “I want to caution us not to overload [the agenda], because I think that’s going to be a lengthy conversation,” she added of the upcoming meeting.
In the past, she added, when other items were on the agendas, “anything else [got] squeezed out. … I think that this one item is pivotal, and we need to allow it the proper time.”
Chairwoman Carolyn Mason agreed that the agenda should be limited to how the boards can collaborate going forward.
“It’s the most critical situation facing downtown Sarasota right now, the chronic homeless,” Commissioner Charles Hines added. “Let’s address it.”
Seeking the truth about Safe Harbor
Then Hines pointed out that he and County Commission Vice Chairman Al Maio had attended a recent conference in St. Petersburg of the Florida Association of Counties (FAC). During that event, Pinellas County Sheriff Gaultieri made a presentation about Safe Harbor. “We continually read and hear what I believe is misinformation about that shelter,” Hines continued. “[Gualtieri] gave it just straight to us: the good and the bad and the ugly. … I feel … our community should hear from him.”
Hines said he believes the City Commission members do agree that the community needs some type of triage shelter, and Marbut, who had helped found Safe Harbor, had recommended a model similar to that facility be built in Sarasota.
Gualtieri could provide the Sarasota City and County commissions with details on the Safe Harbor operation, Hines pointed out, including expenses.
“Being up there and staying in St. Pete [for the FAC meeting], and walking downtown St. Pete, having seen the way it was 10 years ago, it’s just night and day,” Hines added.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Mason said of the suggestion. She also concurred with Hines regarding perceptions of Safe Harbor among Sarasota County residents. “There’s been a lot of what I think is misinformation, and hearing it from the horse’s mouth, if you will, I think would be very beneficial,” Mason continued. “There’s not a single tool in the toolbox that’s going to fit every person, so we have to have a variety of tools to address the variety of issues these folk have,” she noted, referring to the homeless.
“I support it,” Robinson said of Hines’ proposal. However, she added that she would not be surprised if the City Commission rejected the idea, given some of the past city board discussions of the issue, which she had watched. “I want to make sure that we don’t predicate this meeting on [Gualtieri’s appearance].”
“Our job is to do the due diligence, get the information and then make a decision” on how best to proceed in the community, Hines told his colleagues. “If the City Commission chooses not to listen [to Gualtieri], then that’s their choice.” However, if that proved to be the city board’s decision, Hines proposed the county board members invite Gualtieri to address them prior to the joint session with the city commissioners.
The Pinellas sheriff acknowledges the situation is not perfect in that community, Hines continued. “But it’s way better than it was 10 years before, when people were sleeping in the streets.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, a former city board member, also agreed with the suggestion that he and his current colleagues invite Gualtieri to address them if the city commissioners prefer not to have the sheriff on the agenda.
At the conclusion of the county board’s Sept. 9 meeting, Harmer reported that he had sent an email to Barwin, asking about the meeting dates and whether the City Commission would like to have Gualtieri’s presentation on the agenda. Barwin questioned the need for hearing Gualtieri’s remarks, Harmer added. Barwin indicated it would be better just for the county board members to listen to the sheriff’s comments.
“I’ll have a follow-up conversation with him,” Harmer added of Barwin.
“I’m not surprised [by Barwin’s response],” Mason said, “but thank you.”
Hines also reported on Sept. 9 that Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight already had communicated with Gualtieri. In a Sept. 9 email to Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s director of services for the homeless, Knight wrote that Gualtieri “would be fine with coming to do the presentation.” Knight added that he would like to be present for it as well.
Hines expressed his appreciation for Knight’s taking that initiative to reach out to Gualtieri.