At least eight homeless people to be housed in City of Sarasota’s pilot Housing First Program

Board unanimously approves $289,054 agreement with Community Assisted Supportive Living Inc.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Mayor Willie Shaw. News Leader photo
Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Mayor Willie Shaw listen to comments about the agreement. News Leader photo

On a unanimous vote on June 6, the Sarasota City Commission allocated $289,054 out of its pool of federal Community Development Block Grant funds to establish the pilot Housing First Program board members have been discussing for more than a year. It is their top priority in assisting the community’s homeless population.

The agreement with Community Assisted Supportive Living Inc. (CASL) says the money will go toward the acquisition of four single-family homes that will be occupied by at least eight chronically homeless individuals. The dwelling units will remain designated for such occupants in perpetuity, a staff memo explains, instead of for 30 years, as the commission discussed in March. If CASL no longer chooses to use the properties in that manner, the memo continues, the dwelling units will revert to the city. A land use restriction will be placed in the deed of each of the purchased properties, the memo says.

The agreement also notes that the residences must be purchased and leased to eligible beneficiaries by July 31, 2017.

Although the funding was advertised to providers of services for homeless people as well as to nonprofit housing entities, CASL was the only applicant, the staff memo explains, adding that CASL “owns and manages more than 200 rental units for mentally ill or developmentally disabled residents in Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee Counties.”

Don Hadsell, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, told the board members on June 6 that in more recent discussions with representatives of CASL, he learned the organization will be able to provide a cash match of only $50,000. CASL also has pledged to use money from a $206,670 support services grant it has received to assist the people it will provide homes through the Housing First Program.

When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked CASL CEO Scott Eller why the program would be able to house only eight people in the four homes, he explained that the organization typically buys single-family dwellings with two bedrooms. His goal is to exceed the number of people provided for in the agreement, he added, but “we’d rather go over [that], not under.”

Eller also said that CASL is working on other “capital campaigns” to try to secure more funding for its initiatives.

Mayor Willie Shaw talked with Eller during the meeting about “sober homes,” which Shaw called “a cottage industry [that is] growing.” He explained that he was referring to homeless individuals who also may be suffering with addictions or mental health issues.

(From left) Scott Eller and Don Hadsell address the board on June 6. News Leader photo
(From left) Scott Eller and Don Hadsell address the board on June 6. News Leader photo

Eller said that 50 to 60 percent of the people CASL already serves have more than one problem. It will not be able to limit the Housing First dwellings to people who are just homeless, he continued; the organization has to be ready to address multiple issues.

When Commissioner Susan Chapman asked how CASL keeps homeless individuals in housing after it finds them homes, he explained that case management is critical. CASL works with treatment providers, such as First Step and Coastal Behavioral Healthcare, to make certain the people get the assistance they need.

When she asked about CASL’s success rate, Eller pointed to the SHIFTS program created by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and funded by Sarasota County. On Nov. 17, 2015, Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services for the homeless, explained to the County Commission that since the Sheriff’s Housing Initiative Facilitating Transient Service program began operating through CASL during the summer of 2015, it had served 27 people, 21 of whom were still in housing.

Twenty-three of the participants had previously diagnosed behavioral health needs, Applebee noted, and all of them had utilized mental health or substance abuse services — or both. He further explained that 16 of the 27 had had prior interaction with the criminal justice system, representing 231 arrests, 339 criminal charges and 105 warrants. Since SHIFTS began, Applebee said, only one participant had committed a criminal offense.

A city map shows the census tracts where the houses may not be bought. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A city map shows the census tracts where the houses may not be bought. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

That drop in criminal charges, Eller told Chapman on June 6, is a reflection of the success of a program that provides services to people placed in housing.

“You have to have a case worker going to the house every day,” Eller continued. The assistance that case worker provides may be as simple as helping a resident balance a budget, he said, or it may entail making sure a resident keeps an appointment for treatment.

In response to a question from Shaw, Hadsell confirmed that the agreement with CASL provides for the nonprofit to purchase the homes outside city census tracts identified as areas of high poverty.

“I’m very excited about this,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said. “I think you’re doing a great job,” she told Eller.

“The success is in the partnerships,” he replied.