11 Street Team members already have found jobs

Homeless people gather outside Selby Library in downtown Sarasota on Aug. 8. Photo by Norman Schimmel

As of Aug. 1 — the three-month mark — 33 homeless people have rotated through the City of Sarasota’s Street Teams program and 11 of them have been able to find full-time employment, the program’s supervisor reported during the Aug. 8 meeting of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Tom Maxa, a Salvation Army employee in Sarasota, told the approximately 30 people present that while the goal was to see about 65% of the participants gain regular employment, “I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Three of the 11 who were hired “were actually working on the Street Team at their jobs,” he added. In each of those cases, someone from a business came out to tell the worker he or she was doing such a good job, the business wanted to hire the person, Maxa said.

Fourteen people are working on the teams right now, Maxa said, resulting in two teams of five people each and one team with four people.

“There’s a waiting list right now,” he added.

His goal was to have one all-woman team, he said. However, the number of women in the program had been ranging from two to four. In fact, he said, two of the people who had been hired for full-time jobs were women.

Sarasota City Commissioner Terry Turner proposed the Street Teams program during a city meeting on Oct. 24, 2011. He had discussed it with the Salvation Army, he said at the time, calling it “a very disciplined approach to helping people.”

David Sutton, the Salvation Army’s director of programs and facilities in Sarasota, had traveled to Daytona Beach in 2010 to see firsthand how the program worked, after learning about it during a conference.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo also had discussed the program with Salvation Army representatives, he said during that October 2011 meeting. By consensus, the commissioners agreed to pursue it.

Maxa said during the partnership meeting this week that the teams work weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. They clean up the area around Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in north Sarasota as well as the city’s downtown.

“They pick up cigarette butts, trash. They go through the neighborhoods [near MLK Way], through the business areas,” Maxa said. “We’ve made a tremendous impact in the community.”

“I’ve talked to at least half the merchants on Main Street,” Maxa said, “and they’re all very happy … with the work being done.”

After Tropical Storm Debby lashed the county in the latter part of June, Maxa said, the Street Teams were able to clean the city’s streets within 24 hours. The following day, he said, they worked in parks, including those in north Sarasota and Bayfront Park.

On a regular basis, Mara said, a team cleans up the grounds at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Bayfront Park.

Street Team members “come from all walks of life,” he said.

After they finish their work in the mornings, he said, they return to the Salvation Army facility for lunch. A case manager is available to work with them individually in the afternoons to help them look for full-time jobs and to help them get their drivers’ licenses and, if necessary, copies of their birth certificates.

However, Maxa pointed out, “These guys tend to work together” at the Salvation Army. “They give each other leads for jobs.”

The Salvation Army provides the team members room and board, Maxa explained. To be eligible for the program, a person has to be a Sarasota resident and has to pass a background check and undergo drug screening. Even if an applicant is found to have no current problem with drugs or alcohol, he said, every prospective team member has to agree to attend some addiction recovery program sessions.

Bryan Pope, general manager of the Salvation Army in Sarasota, added that the program would not take anyone who had been convicted of being a sexual predator.

Asked whether the program would accept someone who had had a felony conviction, Maxa replied, “We take everybody case by case.”

Pope explained that the city had provided an $80,000 grant for the Street Teams. The funds are for one year with the possibility of a one-year extension, he said.

That money, he added, “doesn’t go very far.”

He said the Salvation Army is “actively looking for partners and sponsors to expand what we’re doing.”

Already, he said, he had seen the need to hire another case manager for the Street Team members, for example.

Richard Martin, executive director of the partnership, told the group, “Everyone I talk to that sees the teams out in the street really gets [the program] right away.”

Referring to the establishment of the teams, Martin said, “This was a wonderful opportunity for politicians caught in the middle of this conflict in the community … to do something.”

Martin also was referring to City Commission debates over the previous couple of years regarding the issue of homelessness in downtown Sarasota. Advocates for the homeless have criticized the commissioners for removing the benches from Five Points Park to prevent the homeless from loitering in the park.

That action, though, was prompted by complaints from downtown merchants and residents.

By funding the Street Teams, Martin said, “the City Commission really stood up. It was quite impressive that one commissioner suggested this,” he added, referring to Turner; then, others proposed doubling the initial amount suggested for the grant.

In an Aug. 8 interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Turner said, “It was a risk that [the program] wouldn’t be effective.”

However, he said, his discussions with Salvation Army personnel last year had given him a lot of confidence that the Street Team proposal would work well.

Regarding the positive response, he added, “It’s really good news.”

Martin was hopeful, he said during the partnership meeting, that the two-year pilot program would prove so successful that financial support would be found to sustain it.

“Give them a little bit of hope, a little bit of self-esteem” and tools to help them change their lives, Maxa said, “and these people just really thrive in that environment. It’s really amazing.”

“I’ve seen absolute miracles,” Maxa added. “It’s really just a blessing to watch.”