Sarasota Police Department’s HOT teams’ goal is to help homeless people get services they need, supervisor says

As part of a regular Continuum of Care meeting, Capt. Kevin Stiff explains the program to service providers and other individuals who work with the homeless in Sarasota and Manatee counties

Leslie Loveless, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens as Capt. Kevin Stiff makes his presentation. Rachel Hackney photo
Leslie Loveless, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens as Capt. Kevin Stiff makes his presentation. Rachel Hackney photo

For the Sarasota Police Department, “arrest is not the primary result of a contact with homeless individuals,” Capt. Kevin Stiff told about 50 people during the regular Continuum of Care meeting conducted this week by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Contrary to reports in the community, he pointed out during a Feb. 24 presentation about the City of Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT), police officers do not arrest homeless individuals for falling asleep outdoors. Instead, officers offer the persons beds at The Salvation Army.

Still, Stiff noted, the city has had a number of problems related to its ordinance banning outdoor lodging. (A lawsuit the Florida Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed against the city last fall on behalf of homeless plaintiffs is scheduled for mediation next month through the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa.)

“[Arrest] is the last resort for homeless individuals,” Stiff stressed.

Last year, he pointed out, “we arrested three people for lodging out of doors. Three. It’s not nearly as horrific as people are accusing us of.”

However, he continued, “We will enforce the law for those who refuse to abide by it.”

A person does not have to be sober to go to The Salvation Army, either, he noted. All the individual has to do is ask for help, Stiff said. As long as beds are open at The Salvation Army — through a contractual arrangement with the city — a person can stay there until a HOT team member can help him or her get into a program designed to help the person transition into a life off the street, Stiff continued.

“Is that going to solve homelessness in the City of Sarasota? No,” Stiff said. “My mission is to offer everyone services and do everything I can do to get them services. … I have no shortage of clients.”

Last year, he said, the two HOT teams recorded a total of 5,300 contacts with homeless people within the city limits. A significant number of those cases involved people the team members previously had spoken with, he pointed out.

A homeless man sleeps on a bench outside City Hall. File photo
A homeless man sleeps on a bench outside City Hall. File photo

At the outset of his remarks, Stiff told the audience that the Sarasota Police Department has dealt with a considerable amount of misunderstanding regarding the operations of its HOT teams, which he supervises.

With the best-case scenarios indicating it would be two years before either a come-as-you-are shelter or the City of Sarasota’s Housing First program could be established, Stiff said, the decision was made at the Police Department to take steps to help the chronically homeless. That led to his traveling to San Diego to see how HOT teams functioned there.

Each Sarasota Police Department HOT team, Stiff explained, has one police officer and one case manager. A sergeant and a lieutenant work with him to fill out the rosters, he added. The two teams “spend a considerable amount of time each week” undertaking outreach, he continued, and a team member is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Sarasota Police Department headquarters faces Payne Park. File photo
The Sarasota Police Department headquarters faces Payne Park. File photo

He also has trained all 100 of the Patrol Division personnel on how to undertake outreach, he said, because they frequently get calls that involve homeless individuals.

He and his HOT team members are working on a flyer that will offer as much contact information as they can find regarding service providers, he noted. Every homeless person the teams contact “who looks like they are in need of services” will get one of those flyers, he said.

Additionally, each Tuesday, a member of the Continuum of Care goes out with a team, he pointed out. “Everybody in this room [represents] the services that we are trying to push to.”

The Continuum of Care, which represents Manatee and Sarasota counties, “convenes service providers, community leaders, law enforcement, government [leaders] and homeless individuals,” who collaborate and coordinate services for homeless people, the Suncoast Partnership website explains.

Two recent success stories

During his presentation, Stiff introduced Sgt. Richie Schwieterman, who has been a member of the HOT teams for the past six months, to talk about two individuals who recently agreed to seek assistance. Both had been living on the streets for the past 20 years, Stiff noted.

“[Schwieterman] is dedicated [to the work],” Stiff added.

Schwieterman told the audience he has been with the Sarasota Police Department for 16 years. He worked mostly in Newtown, he added, until he was promoted to sergeant.

Sgt. Richie Schwieterman. Rachel Hackney photo
Sgt. Richie Schwieterman. Rachel Hackney photo

One day, Schwieterman said, he received a phone call asking him to serve on the HOT teams.
“He was told he was going to volunteer,” Stiff pointed out, drawing laughter.

“I was happy,” Schwieterman continued. “When I took this job, it was to help people.” The HOT teams, he said, are “just a different avenue of police work that was presented to me …”

The two individuals — one man and one woman — he was able to get off the street in the past week both had been staying in the vicinity of City Hall in downtown Sarasota for 16 years, he added.

The man had a monthly income of $1,800, Schwieterman noted, but “he’s a chronic alcoholic.” The man was getting “love [and] comfort” from the other homeless people who stayed near City Hall, Schwieterman pointed out. However, those people were using the man, he said. It took about three months of regular talks with the man, Schwieterman continued, before the man understood the situation. Then he finally agreed to go to go to First Step, a nonprofit organization that offers substance abuse treatment. After he received help there, Schwieterman added, the man was willing to go to The Salvation Army.

After they spent four hours talking with him at the latter facility, Schwieterman continued — and learned the man is a veteran — Schwieterman and case managers asking what he wanted to do. The man decided to take a look at Harvest House, Schwieterman said, so Schwieterman and a case manager drove him there. (Harvest House offers transitional housing for veterans, among other programs.)

Then, after talking with a Harvest House case manager, Schwieterman told the audience, the man said, “‘I think I’m going to be successful here.’”

Schwieterman added that he plans to follow up with the man next week. “So far, he’s doing good.”

Regarding the homeless woman: Schwieterman explained that although she is 52, she has the appearance of someone who is 80, and she is a chronic alcoholic as well.

In observing the case managers talking with her over time, he continued, he noticed that she “was messing with a bag.”

Every time they asked if she wanted help, he added, she replied, “No.”

Homeless people gather under the shade trees in the City Hall parking lot in September 2013. File photo
Homeless people gather under the shade trees near the City Hall parking lot in September 2013. File photo

Then he figured it out, he told the audience: “She’s got a bottle of vodka in that bag. … She’s not ready to leave. Her addiction’s telling her, ‘I’ve got this bag.’”

The same day he drove the man to Harvest House, Schwieterman noted, he talked with the woman himself, but she said she still was not ready to seek help. He let an hour pass, he added, and then he spoke with her again. “Her bottle was done,” he said, and she agreed to let him drive her to First Step. “Hopefully, she completes the detox over there.”

The woman has agreed to go to The Salvation Army next, he continued, noting that he will make certain as many case managers as possible — representing a variety of agencies — are available to talk with her there.

“She has no income, no disability,” Schwieterman pointed out, and she had not succeeded when she had tried to seek help in the past. “I didn’t promise her anything other than I would do the best I could for her.”

Schwieterman told the audience, “Don’t promise anyone anything, because … if it doesn’t come true, they lose faith in what you’re trying to do.”

Leslie Loveless, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership, summed up Schwieterman’s remarks: “What I heard … was he showed respect for the homeless people, and he also gave them choices and let them make decisions. … We have to give that choice to them and act respectful.”

“It’s all about trust,” Stiff reiterated the point. “They have to know what the officers are there for.”