City attorney pleased ACLU case settlement allows city to maintain its relationship with the Salvation Army

City pays Salvation Army for up to 30 beds a night for homeless individuals

A homeless person camps in Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota. Image from the City of Sarasota

In remarks this week to the Sarasota City Commission, City Attorney Robert Fournier called the city’s recent settlement of a lawsuit the Sarasota Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed against it on Sept. 30, 2015 “a good one,” because it is based on efforts the city already is undertaking to help the homeless.

The complaint, which was moved from the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to federal court in Tampa, alleged the city’s “persistent efforts to criminalize the status of those who are homeless despite the lack of an available shelter and a deepening housing crisis.”

The lawsuit said that enforcement of a city ordinance prohibiting outdoor lodging “when there is no publicly available shelter violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.” All of the plaintiffs were described in the complaint as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” as well as a permanent residence.

The June 22 settlement says — as Fournier noted on July 3 — that the city and the Salvation Army “have a longstanding agreement whereby the Salvation Army emergency shelter facility, located at 1400 10th Street in Sarasota, Florida, will accept individuals suspected of violating [the Lodging Out-of-Doors ordinance],” if they are escorted by Sarasota Police Department officers to the shelter.”

The Salvation Army facility is on 10th Street in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

The city’s agreement with the Salvation Army calls for the faith-based organization to hold up to 30 beds each night for homeless people the Police Department might bring to the 10th Street facility. The city’s Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) had been using 20 beds on a regular basis when the City Commission voted unanimously in November 2016 to increase the number, at staff’s recommendation.

“We are maintaining at least 80% occupancy of the beds,” Capt. Kevin Stiff, leader of the Sarasota Police Department HOT teams, explained to the commission on Nov. 21, 2016.

The city pays $35 per bed to reserve 10 beds per day at the Salvation Army’s facility, the ACLU/city settlement says. The city has the option of using up to 30 beds a day, at the same rate.

As Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out to the City Commission at the Nov. 21, 2016 meeting, the city pays only for the beds that are occupied.

The settlement also says that the Salvation Army will work with the city and the Police Department “to educate and encourage shelter occupants to utilize the resources, programs and social services available to them [at its facility] and the Continuum of Care and other social service organizations.”

The Continuum of Care comprises the agencies in Sarasota and Manatee counties that work to develop and implement strategies to end homelessness.

Additionally, the settlement calls for the Salvation Army to dedicate one case manager for each of the 10 beds that the city reserves. The case manager will work with those shelter occupants to assist them in meeting their needs. In that regard, the settlement emphasizes, the Salvation Army will be working “independently and pursuant to its own mission.”

Michael Barfield. File photo

Asked by The Sarasota News Leader for a response to the settlement, Michael Barfield, a Sarasota paralegal who is vice president of the ACLU of Florida, wrote in an email, “The Sarasota chapter of the ACLU of Florida is happy have reached this agreement with the City. No longer will the City of Sarasota be able to criminalize being poor or homeless. The agreement provides meaningful relief to those in our community suffering the most, including an actual bed to lay their head, rather than mats on the floor. No longer will these individuals be awakened at 4 a.m. to be told to leave the Salvation Army, only to be cited by an officer at 5 or 6 a.m. after they’ve slept on the floor. Under the agreement, individuals will no longer be compelled to attend religious services simply to have a place to sleep at night.”

Barfield added, “Our community has a lot more to do to make meaningful progress on issues involving the homeless, but decriminalizing the mere status of being homeless is an important step in this process.”

Federal Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida had set Aug. 9 as the cut-off date for all discovery in the case. However, in an order she issued on April 11 to extend pre-trial deadlines, she wrote, “The Parties recently engaged in extensive mediation that, at present, has resulted in a meeting of the minds and draft agreement on non-monetary relief. The Parties need additional time to resolve monetary relief.”

‘Acknowledgment of efforts’

On July 3, Fournier told the City Commission that at the time the lawsuit was filed, “I had quite a bit to say, because I was very … concerned and upset that it was unfair to [the Police Department],” which was undertaking considerable outreach efforts to homeless individuals in the city. “But I think this [settlement], at least … shows an acknowledgement of those efforts.”

In a formal statement issued on June 22, City Manager Tom Barwin wrote, “The voluntary 2-page settlement ends litigation and confirms that the City’s practices are not only aligned with the law, but represent a reasonable and compassionate approach to dealing with the homeless. It should be noted, the City’s Homeless Outreach Team has been recognized nationally for its best practices approach to addressing one of the nation’s most challenging problems, following the dramatic reduction of chronic homelessness within the City over the past year. With this case behind us, we invite the ACLU and any and all to partner with us to raise funds to support rapid re-housing, as well as mental health and substance abuse counseling programs to return individuals to health, stability and a productive lifestyle.”

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

In an email to the City Commission on June 22, Barwin pointed out that the case began with a Sarasota Police Department officer “giving [lead plaintiff] Mr. David Cross a verbal warning to not sleep at the [Selby Public Library in downtown Sarasota], per the wishes of the library. As an aside, during this case, after years of efforts, our HOT team was successful in helping qualifying the lead plaintiff for the retirement benefits he was entitled to and also helped him find permanent housing.”

Barwin added that each of seven plaintiffs in the case will receive $1,000, “and the attorney’s fees have been dramatically reduced from their earlier demands to the settlement amount of $27,000.”

He also pointed out that the case prompted visits from nationally known news organizations, including the PBS News Hour. “Those news media investigations based on the accusations of the lawsuit (cruel and unusual punishment) … ended up helping tell the national story in terms of housing and mental health treatment challenges, and ironically ended up featuring our homeless outreach team and the practices for which they have recently received national recognition,” he added.

“With this behind us … it would seem to continue to allow us to build momentum to improve the regional coordination on this challenge and … encourage people and organizations to get behind the much needed effort to fund and identify ample rapid rehousing and the critical mental health and substance abuse counseling essential to stabilizing troubled individuals and seeing as many as possible return to a stable lifestyle.”

In April, a consultant with the Florida Housing Coalition — working under contract with the city — produced a report with a series of recommendations to resolve the issues of homelessness in the community. Both the City and County commissions accepted the report and are working on strategies to fund the initiatives. Among them, Susan Pourciau, director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Coalition, said a total of 50 beds should be made available at any given time at the Salvation Army.