County to seek $500,000 in CARES Act grant to assist the homeless and those in danger of losing their homes as a result of the COVID-19 crisis

Emergency Services director says staff is working with Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County on plan to help as many people as possible

Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.

Sarasota County Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County’s Emergency Services staff is working on a request for $508,541 in grant funds available through the CARES Act that could be used to help the homeless in the county and those at risk of losing their homes, Emergency Services Director Rich Collins informed the county commissioners this week.

The money would come through the Emergency Solutions Grants (ESG) program Collins reported.

“[W]e understand that there have been inquiries regarding the County’s potential use CARES Act funding for the purpose of sheltering for those without a place to isolate or quarantine,” Collins wrote the commissioners in an email late in the afternoon of April 15. “This funding is for multiple uses, which would include … the Health Department Plan for providing quarantine and isolation for individuals,” he wrote. It also could pay for “protection of vulnerable families,” he noted, including eviction assistance, rental deposits assistance and rapid rehousing.

The National Coalition for the Homeless explains on its website that the CARES Act included $4 billion for the Emergency Solutions Grants. “Usually with ESG grants,” that website says, “there is a state matching component, but this component has been [waived] for purposes of this emergency funding.”

Collins added in his April 15 email, “It would be important as a community that we work together to ensure the care for individuals that have no place to quarantine or isolate as well as the vulnerable families who will face many challenges over the coming weeks and months.”

In an April 13 email to Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin, Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, wrote that 35 individuals in Sarasota County had been identified as meeting the Florida Department of Health’s criteria as members of “vulnerable populations,” meaning they are 65 or older and have high-risk conditions that dictate that they should “remain in their residence and take all measures to limit the risk of exposure to COVID-19,” as the state Health Department put it in a March 25 public health advisory.

Chris Johnson is the CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. Image courtesy of the nonprofit

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) “released a Non-Congregate Sheltering Delegation of Authority Waiver Memo,” Johnson added, which allows FEMA funds “to be utilized for hotel/motel rooms …”

Among its criteria, the FEMA waiver says, “The non-congregate sheltering must be at the direction of and documented through an official order signed by a state, local, tribal, or territorial public health official.” The waiver also specifies, “The funding for non-congregate sheltering to meet the needs of the Public Health Emergency cannot be duplicated by another federal agency, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Johnson noted in his email to Barwin.

“For those among the unsheltered homeless population,” Johnson wrote, “individual living spaces is the best option [as those are] self contained and [limit] potential exposure to COVID-19. Congregant sheltered [housing] would be the next best option as [homeless individuals] would still have less exposure than on the street,” Johnson added. In the latter case, each person would need a designated space in a facility where he or she could remain isolated, “with minimal movement in and out of the shelter for those they are rooming with.”

Johnson noted that he had made a request to Sarasota County staff “for non-congregant sheltering options to be provided and will hopefully hear something soon. It was indicated that this conversation was already happening so my formal request was just another piece of the conversation.”

In his April 15 email to the commissioners, Collins wrote that county staff had shared the federal grant information “with all of the Cities and multiple agencies. Staff is actively working with the [Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County] to identify how this funding can be used to assist as many vulnerable populations as possible.”

Collins also pointed out that staff “is working on various communications methods to further disseminate information regarding this grant and a holistic approach for all of the various vulnerable citizens.”

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin has advocated for stronger steps to assist the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis. In his April 10 newsletter, Barwin wrote, “Since the local public health emergency was declared on March 13, the City has been in discussions with Sarasota County and the local health department about options to assist the homeless population with personal hygiene and meals since nearly every facility [homeless individuals] relied on is now closed. Early on, the unsheltered became less visible as, we believe, they retreated from the urban core into makeshift camps. But, as the weeks go by, many are coming out for food handouts and the number of homeless appears to be approximately 100 total spread out in four different places.”

Barwin added, “While we await action from the County, which has the means, staffing and grant dollars to facilitate at least a temporary solution to provide the unsheltered a safe, clean place to eat, wash up and help slow the spread of COVID-19, the City is now taking necessary additional measures and has ordered temporary port-o-lets and hand stations for several locations.” (See the related story in this issue.)