City-county board collaboration on homelessness collapses

A storm of confusion swirled Monday as the county commissioners pulled apart a city-county agreement brokered just three days earlier

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie and County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo
City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie and County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo

The Sarasota City and County commissioners seemed to have found considerable common ground on the most vexing and controversial issue in Sarasota. But a closer alignment exhibited late last week proved short-lived.

The two boards voted separately on Friday, Nov. 6, to direct their staffs to work together on a strategy incorporating both a homeless shelter and long-term housing and bring back recommendations within 45 days at the latest. After a year-and-a-half of silence following arguments over establishing a come-as-you-are shelter in Sarasota, the commissions agreed to put aside unanswered questions and unsolved challenges to take a cohesive approach towards addressing chronic homelessness.

During his presentation to the boards on Nov. 6, Doug Logan, whom the city hired about five months ago as director of special initiatives on chronic homelessness, pointed out that he and Wayne Applebee, the county’s coordinator of services for the homeless, “talk to each other every day and respect each other’s opinions.”

Further, Logan said, an eight-point plan the City Commission has approved calls for developing an appropriate public, emergency shelter for the homeless as well as implementing a “muscular” Housing First initiative and “dramatically improving” the community’s availability of mental health resources to help the homeless.

Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo
Vice Chair Al Maio. File photo

Yet, three days later, on Nov. 9, the County Commission unanimously rescinded its Nov. 6 vote. The commissioners then took a separate vote on a motion by Vice Chair Al Maio to direct county staff to continue due diligence on potential shelter sites in unincorporated North Sarasota County and to take any necessary steps in negotiating terms of a contract. The motion also called for staff to work on funding strategies for the facility.

County commissioners said those Nov. 9 votes still leave the door open to collaboration with the city. “None of these means our staff stops talking to the City of Sarasota,” Maio pointed out.

In the aftermath, it appears city and county leaders once again will be moving along separate paths.

“Why did they waste our time for hours and hours on Friday if they never had the intention of acting in good faith?” City Commissioner Susan Chapman told The Sarasota News Leader on Nov. 10.

An afternoon of confusion

Jon Thaxton addresses the boards on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo
Jon Thaxton addresses the boards on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo

The boards’ Nov. 6 votes came after prompting from former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, now with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, during the public comments segment at the opening of the commissions’ first joint meeting on the issue of chronic homelessness since June 2014.

After about two hours of discussion Friday, the boards agreed the county needs a homeless shelter — long a County Commission goal — and a strategy to build or retrofit housing units for homeless people — a priority for the City Commission.

Following the Nov. 6 meeting, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie told the News Leader she was hopeful the city and county staffs would be able to craft a recommendation together that, a month later, would lead to board votes approving a joint action plan.

Then on Nov. 9, city officials dealt with an afternoon of confusion, after the county commissioners pulled apart the Nov. 6 agreement.

The city commissioners received an email from City Manager Tom Barwin at 4:17 p.m. in which he wrote that the county board had rescinded its Nov. 6 motion. Barwin had learned about that from a reporter. “This information has not been conveyed to us by the county as of this writing,” Barwin informed the city board members in his email. “If true the action is a bit puzzling,” he added.

Barwin had been trying to get in touch with County Administrator Tom Harmer throughout the day, Barwin added, and he would continue to do so, to secure concrete information.

“There was an hour or so of confusion,” Chapman told the News Leader.

At 5:13 p.m. on Nov. 9, Harmer replied to Barwin.

Chapman said she had been concerned the county would stray from Friday’s agreement. Still, she told the News Leader, she was surprised to hear the county had rescinded its motion so quickly.

“I predicted heart burn and high blood pressure, and we got it,” Chapman said. “They haven’t changed,” she added of the county board members, “and they are still trying to bully us.”

Will the city and county ever truly come together on addressing homelessness, she was asked?

“Maybe after we have elections,” Chapman said.

Chapman has been a proponent of Housing First. She points to studies showing long-term housing is the only permanent solution to chronic homelessness. Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw also have been most vocal on their board in opposing any county efforts to put a homeless shelter in or near Newtown in North Sarasota County.

New concerns arose about such a location during the public comments on Nov. 6, when several speakers reported they had learned of recent county interest in a site near Booker High School, Booker Middle School and the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in North Sarasota County.

Speaking on behalf of the county’s NAACP branch, Ed James II told the County Commission on Nov. 6, “Don’t continue to disrespect us ….”

County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo perhaps was prescient when he said, “This issue has been exhausting. … If we are looking for perfection and political palatability, forget it.”

Bucko's is located across Myrtle Street from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. Image from Google Maps
Bucko’s is located across Myrtle Street from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex (marked with the red balloon). Image from Google Maps

Avoiding a stalemate

In reversing themselves on Nov. 9, the county commissioners indicated they wanted to avoid a stalemate with the city.

Commissioner Christine Robinson first raised the topic at the conclusion of the board’s morning business. (The issue of homelessness was not advertised as a discussion item on the Nov. 9 agenda.) Robinson alluded to a Nov. 8 email from Jon Thaxton of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, citing it as the basis for concern about the board’s Nov. 6 action.

Thaxton made it clear in that email to Mayor Willie Shaw, county board Chair Carolyn Mason and the other city and county commissioners that he felt the Foundation no longer should take the lead in helping city and county staff members draft a set of recommendations. In making her Nov. 6 motion for staff collaboration, Robinson included a provision that the Foundation serve in a leadership role.

Community residents gather in the County Commission Chambers on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo
Community residents gather in the County Commission Chambers on Nov. 6. Rachel Hackney photo

Further, Thaxton wrote in his Nov. 8 email, “Imposing a deadline to resolve these differences could result in increasing the divide rather than bringing the two sides closer together as I had hoped.”

As director of community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Thaxton has been closely involved in the efforts to address homelessness in Sarasota County. He told the News Leader Monday afternoon he was fearful that his suggestion on Friday for a deadline by which county and city staff could achieve a recommendation could led to a stalemate, instead of common ground, as he had intended. Thaxton added that he realized during the Nov. 6 meeting that the city and county boards and their staffs were “further along” in implementing their specific goals.

After sending his email Sunday, he talked to both county and city leaders about how a timeline could result in “increasing the divide,” he told the News Leader.

At the conclusion of the county board’s afternoon agenda items on Nov. 9, Vice Chair Maio — acting in place of absent Chair Mason — asked whether anyone had further business to discuss. Then Robinson raised the issue again of the Nov. 6 vote. That led to Maio’s new motion on direction to county staff regarding the shelter and the decision to rescind the Nov. 6 vote.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

In his 5:13 p.m. email that day, Harmer explained the turn of events to Barwin.

“Our Board just finished up for the day,” Harmer wrote. “At our meeting today our Board discussed Mr. Thaxton’s (Gulf Coast Community Foundation [GCCF]) email that he sent out to the Mayor and Chair on Sunday. He has indicated to our Board that he felt the time pressure of the 45 days would not be productive and suggested that common ground could better be found as both the City and County go forward with the implementation of their initiatives. Based on the feedback from the Foundation and receiving word that the GCCF would not be participating in the 45 day effort our Board elected to withdraw their support for that effort. They did emphasize the need for the staffs to continue to cooperate and communicate as we both move forward. I will give you a call to discuss further.”

Going forward

Thaxton told the News Leader he remains hopeful the two government bodies can work together, as the city pursues a Housing First approach and the county moves ahead with plans for a shelter operated by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office.

Those approaches can be combined, he said, adding that the two local government bodies should cooperate on the common goal of reducing the number of chronically homeless individuals in the community. A shelter can be used as a triage center to get the homeless off the streets and into housing, he pointed out, while the Housing First philosophy of building or retrofitting housing units for the homeless would reduce the demand on a shelter.

“What I heard at the [Nov. 6] meeting, what I heard before the meeting, and what I heard after the meeting, gives me hope,” Thaxton told the News Leader. “It also maintains the reality that we have some really difficult decisions to work out.”

County Vice Chair Maio made a similar point on Nov. 9. “I don’t think the two are going to be mutually exclusive,” Maio said of the shelter and Housing First initiatives.

County Commissioner Charles Hines added of the shelter proposal, “In order to proceed with the triage of these folks on the street, we need to move forward with this.”

A ‘jail-ter’?

City Commissioner Susan Chapman. News Leader archive
City Commissioner Susan Chapman. News Leader archive

But Chapman views Monday’s vote as a counter step to the collaborative spirit established, and the votes cast, on Nov. 6.

For example, she said she wonders why county leaders decided a few years ago that it cost too much to place a library on a parcel of land next to the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex — located at 1845 34th St. in Sarasota — but they are considering the same property for a shelter.

The parcel Chapman referenced — the same one several speakers mentioned on Nov. 6 — is the location of Bucko’s, an office equipment and furniture store at 1923 Myrtle St.

“They want to inflict this huge burden on the poorest section of our city,” Chapman told the News Leader. “They are racist.” Chapman notes that other shelters whose establishment followed communities’ work with nationally known homelessness consultant Robert Marbut have been built in poor areas of cities. (Marbut also is the person the City and County of Sarasota hired in 2013 to help with the situation in this community.) In such neighborhoods, Chapman added, residents are less likely to prove successful in opposing that type of facility. “[Community leaders] put it where they think people aren’t listened to,” Chapman said.

Sarasota County staff and commissioners have not considered establishing a mid-county shelter, she pointed out, although such a location has been broached by at least one official in the City of Venice.

Chapman also has philosophical questions about the county’s plans, including creating a jail-diversion shelter in combination with stricter laws that will send homeless people either to the shelter or the jail. She said she worries this will result in further criminalization of the homeless. She shared with the News Leader a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty that described the Pinellas Safe Harbor facility — long a model for the County Commission’s shelter concept — as a “correctionalized” shelter.

That document says admission to Safe Harbor is dependent on a Notice to Appear diversion process as part of an agreement among the Office of the Pinellas County Public Defender, the State Attorney’s Office, the Pinellas County Sheriff ’s Office and local police agencies. The National Law Center report reads, “Because of [rules], and because the facility is operated by the Sheriff ’s Office with private security teams, the ‘shelter’ feels more like a correctional institution than a real shelter and has earned itself the nickname: ‘jail-ter’”.

“I don’t believe in jailing the homeless, but [the county commissioners] do,” Chapman said.

‘A step forward’

Pinellas Safe Harbor is the homeless shelter in Clearwater. Photo courtesy of Pinellas Safe Harbor
Pinellas Safe Harbor is the homeless shelter in Clearwater. Photo courtesy of Pinellas Safe Harbor

However, the county commissioners gave a warm reception to Pinellas County Sheriff Robert Gualtieri and former Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala when they appeared before the board last month to talk about the conception of Pinellas Harbor and how downtown St. Petersburg no longer is the scene of scores of homeless people.

Having told his colleagues in earlier sessions that he has been impressed by the positive changes in Pinellas County since Safe Harbor opened, Commissioner Charles Hines on Nov. 6 initially opposed County Commissioner Robinson’s motion to have staffs work on details and produce a report within 30 or 45 days. “I was hoping today that we would take a step forward,” he said.

Vice Chair Al Maio also opposed Robinson’s motion at first. “These people that are in trouble are still out there in trouble,” he added.

“Everybody’s frustrated,” Robinson told them. “We also understand [homelessness is] a problem we will never fully solve.”

Although her motion failed on her first attempt, Robinson prevailed. Yet, on Nov. 9, she voiced the greatest level of concern about the Gulf Coast Community Foundation’s declining the leadership role with the city and county staffs that she had envisioned.

Hines proposed the county board proceed as it had prior to the Nov. 6 meeting, with efforts focused on establishing some sort of shelter. “What was clear [during the Nov. 6 discussions] was we need a shelter,” Hines pointed out. “We need to lead and proceed.”