Sheriff’s Office lieutenant warns that law enforcement personnel must treat all people the same way
An incident at the gazebo in Siesta Village on the morning of Aug. 4 sparked another public exchange about the handling of homelessness issues on Siesta Key. It came just two days after a debate of the topic among members of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA).
During the Aug. 4 Siesta Key Association (SKA) session, Vice President Bob Stein pointed out that Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office personnel had been trying to assist homeless people on the island. Sgt. Jason Mruczek, who leads the office’s substation on the Key, reported that the Salvation Army in Sarasota and the Sheriff’s Office, through its Sheriff’s Housing Initiative Facilitating Transient Service (SHIFTS) program, offer help. However, Mruczek said, “The majority of [homeless people on the Key] have declined to partake in [such programs] for now.”
“Here, we certainly have noticed some more complaints recently,” added Lt. Donny Kennard, the new supervisor of Sheriff’s Office personnel on the island.
Then Mark Smith, vice president of the SKVA, announced that its members suspected homeless people who have been staying in the gazebo in recent days “defecated all around [it] and smeared [feces] around.”
“These aren’t folks that are looking for help,” Smith told the approximately 40 people at the SKA meeting.
Having served on the All Faiths Food Bank board for six years — including a stint as chair — “I have a real sympathy for the homeless folks that are in trouble,” Smith continued, especially families who have no place to live. However, the recent problems on the island seem to revolve around people who have “total disregard for the rest of us,” he added, “and I wish we could help them and help ourselves at the same time.” Referring to the gazebo incident, he told the group, “This kind of behavior is disgusting.”
When Stein asked what time of day it was discovered, Smith replied that it was between 8:30 and 9 a.m.
Anyone who sees homeless people “sprawled out on picnic tables, sleeping overnight,” can call the Sheriff’s Office, Stein said.
The Sheriff’s Office does have to be careful to treat homeless people the same way it would treat any other person, Kennard explained, “as frustrating as [the] problem may be. … These are citizens … of this county.”
The Sheriff’s Office can arrest anyone creating a disturbance or violating a county ordinance, Kennard pointed out. If a resident sees something suspicious, he continued, the person should call the Sheriff’s Office and report the information. “Don’t let something fester and become a big problem,” he advised. “Give us the best opportunity to come out … and assess that [situation] as opposed to [waiting] days or weeks later [to call].”
Kennard also explained that it is not illegal to sleep on the beach. Any such activity a resident observes must be assessed on a case-by-case basis, he said. “I’m not going to put one scenario in a box for everybody.”
When an audience member asked Kennard whether it is legal for someone to sleep on a picnic table at the public beach park late at night, Kennard responded that, again, relevant facts would have to be considered. For example, Kennard noted, if the person had been sleeping there for several consecutive days, that might be considered camping at the beach, which is a violation of the County Code. “It’s a very challenging situation,” Kennard added. “[It’s] hard to write an ordinance to fit every category.”
Kennard explained that the beach parking lot closes at midnight, but the beach itself “doesn’t close.”
Panhandling and the County Code
When SKA Director Joe Volpe asked whether panhandling is allowed, Sgt. Mruczek replied that no one can solicit for money on a county right of way. However, someone could ask for money at the gazebo.
Chapter 98 of the Sarasota County Code lists the prohibitions against solicitation in the right of way. The County Commission amended the Code in 2013 and 2014 to deal with panhandling by prohibiting obstruction of traffic and preventing “an unreasonable risk of accidents due to distraction of motorists and pedestrians and interference with the vision of motorists and pedestrians.” The Code says, “This section is intended to be narrowly-tailored to serve the significant government interest of public safety, and to leave open ample alternative channels for distribution, receipt, and exchange upon the public sidewalks or other areas of the Public Right-of-Way …” However, to enable charitable organizations, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), to continue to seek contributions from drivers at intersections, the Code also was amended to allow for permits for such activity to be issued by county staff.
Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services for the homeless, also has advised the County Commission in written reports that a Quality of Life ordinance that would address camping, storage of personal property, public urination and defecation, and panhandling on public property can be enforced only after the county has established a come-as-you-are (CAYA) homeless shelter.
County spokesman Drew Winchester confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader on Aug. 8 that such a county ordinance is still in draft form. “It would go before the [County Commission] once a CAYA [shelter] was approved/opened,” Winchester wrote in an email.
When Volpe suggested signage could be erected at the gazebo to discourage tourists from giving money to homeless individuals, Michael Shay, past SKA president, pointed out, “The [county attorney] is not crazy about signage like that,” as that could open up the prospect of litigation against the county.
Discussions are underway among members of the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp. and its board, Shay continued, to make changes in the gazebo to discourage homeless people from remaining in the structure for hours at a time and from sleeping there.
Shay is the Maintenance Corp. liaison for the SKVA. That organization represents all the property owners in Siesta Village whom the county assesses each year to pay for the Village upkeep.