City/county debate over how best to help the homeless during COVID-19 crisis arises again during board meetings this week

City manager continues to advocate for ‘tent city,’ while county commissioners protest the idea and county crisis leadership team members say they need more information

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin has continued to advocate for a central services location for the homeless during the COVID-19 public health crisis. He has suggested that the Sarasota County Fairgrounds is a potential site for a ‘tent city.’ Image from Google Maps

Two local government discussions two days apart this week underscored continued, diverging views about how best to help the homeless during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Sarasota city commissioners appeared to be open to the idea of establishing a central location where homeless individuals could sleep, shower and eat, under social distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, during the County Commission’s regular meeting on April 8, Commissioner Charles Hines reprised concern he expressed on March 24 about the potential creation of a “tent city.” Local government leaders would “have to deal with all the legal consequences … of trying to undo that [after the public health crisis ended],” he added, “and we’ve never even discussed [such a facility] as a community.”

During the April 6 Sarasota City Commission workshop, City Manager Tom Barwin reported that smaller gatherings of the homeless had been observed “as of the last 10 days,” though he acknowledged that larger groups were still congregating in some places.

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch. File image

In fact, at 10:10 a.m. that day, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch sent Barwin, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, County Commissioner Hines and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis an email reporting on a text she had received from one of the owners of the Main Street restaurant C’est La Vie earlier that day. Christophe Coutelle had texted her the following, Ahearn-Koch wrote, translating from Coutelle’s French: “‘I wanted to let you know that this morning there were about 15 homeless people on the ground in front of the restaurant, under the tables (outside). This is becoming more and more of worrisome situation and their numbers are increasing, not only here but also at the bus station.’“

Coutelle was referring to the Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) station on Lemon Avenue, which long has been a gathering place for the homeless in downtown Sarasota.

In her email, Ahearn-Koch added, “I know the City is required to coordinate through the county so if we could share this with those necessary departments, I am sure they would appreciate the update. And, this would help in the continued formulation of a plan.”

Deputy City Manager Brown responded, “I understand that there was an incident there this morning that required [a Sarasota Police Department] response. I alerted [Krystal Frazier, a city case worker who helps the homeless] of the number of individuals who were there this morning. I will let you know how we intend to handle [this],” Brown added.

A plan for handling such issues is what City Manager Barwin focused on during his remarks to the City Commission later that day.

Noting that he participates in a conference call three times a week involving representatives of the agencies that serve the homeless, Barwin explained during the commission workshop that that group has been exploring options for the potential that the public health crisis will continue for another three to six weeks. Among those options, he said, is “potentially aggregating or opening a place where people can eat and practice personal hygiene” while following the social distancing guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

After talking with representatives of a couple of agencies that still are providing face-to-face services for the homeless, Frazier of the city staff pointed out, “I don’t think that a lot of the homeless clients were informed that they can still go to the Salvation Army [Center for Hope on 10th Street] for showers and [use of public restrooms].” Moreover, she noted, the public restrooms at city parks are still open.

An aerial view shows the Salvation Army’s Center for Hope emergency shelter facilities, located at 1400 10th St. in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

She added that an initiative would be underway to get all that information to homeless individuals.

Further, Frazier continued, about 80 homeless people arrived in the county in March with plans to work at the annual county fair. After it was cancelled out of concerns about the potential spread of the virus, she said, those individuals “were kind of stuck here,” and they may not be familiar with the services they can access.

Commissioner Willie Shaw reported that he has found that at least 37 people have been sleeping outside overnight between Sixth and Ninth streets, near the Salvation Army emergency shelter. What about the possibility of using the Sarasota County Fairgrounds, he asked, as a facility for services for the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis.

“The city has proposed that,” Barwin responded, and the [Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County] and representatives of agencies that serve the homeless “rejected that concept up until now. … They were fearful that it would cause aggregation …” City staff had maintained that a situation could be created to ensure compliance with the CDC guidelines.

City Manager Tom Barwin listens to comments during a 2019 City Commission meeting. File photo

Barwin also noted that he spoke with about 30 homeless individuals before the city closed Five Points Park on March 23. “They were very honest with us.”

Among their concerns, he said, were whether they and their “significant others” could remain together in a dedicated area; whether pets would be allowed; whether security would be on site, as arguments might erupt; and whether protocols would be in place to help people who might suffer withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.

“Now, two weeks later,” Barwin said, “the ‘Powers that Be’ and the Health Department are beginning to revisit [city staff’s suggestions].” The Health Department, he added, does have an agreement of cooperation with the Fair Board.

Thanks to the city’s and Sarasota County’s declarations of a public emergency, Barwin pointed out, “We do have some powers and authority.”

Barwin added that he should be able to provide the City Commission an update on the issue in a couple of days.

Plenty of questions remaining to be answered

During the April 8 County Commission meeting, Commissioner Hines asked Rich Collins, the county’s Emergency Services Department director, whether Collins has been “pushing back” on City Manager Barwin’s idea about relocating the homeless to a specific location. “We’re not getting that information,” Hines told Collins.

The Executive Policy Group that functions under the county’s emergency management plan is the commission’s “response arm” to provide policy direction and make recommendations in a crisis such as this one, Collins replied. The proposal for a “tent city” for the homeless, he continued, “has been a topic of discussion.” In fact, Collins said, city staff brought it up again the previous day during a conference call with local government leaders.

The discussion has centered on “some type of aggregation at the fairgrounds for … feeding,” as well as provision of restrooms and other services the homeless need, Collins explained. “We have, at the Executive Policy Group [level], pushed back with a number of questions.”

Rich Collins addresses Siesta Key Association members in May 2018. File photo

For example, Collins pointed out, the group has asked for data that would demonstrate the need for such a response. Furthermore, he said, the group has questioned “the legal authority for displacing the homeless to a central location.”
Yet another concern, he continued, is that not every homeless individual would be expected to want to relocate. That could lead to more stress on service providers, he indicated, as they would have to work with the people in the central location and continue to help homeless individuals in other places.

“Then, from a public health standpoint,” Collins added, “how would the city ensure the individuals [in the central location] maintain social distance?” Would city staff provide supervisory or security personnel, Collins asked, to ensure the CDC guidelines are obeyed, as well as ensure the facility remained sanitary.

“So it’s more than just moving people,” Collins explained. “We’ve pushed back,” he reiterated his earlier point, adding that city staff had not yet provided the answers the Executive Policy Group needs.

“If certain things require an emergency [County Commission] meeting,” Hines responded, “such as the creation of a tent city,” then County Administrator Jonathan Lewis would need to convey that to the commissioners.

“So the city manager is proposing a tent city that our county health director, that we’re taking guidance from, has advised against?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked, referring to Chuck Henry, director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department.

Hines reminded Ziegler that he brought up his concerns two weeks ago during the March 24 commission meeting.

Hines added that he did not believe Henry participated in the City Commission workshop on April 6.

“Are [the city commissioners] only getting [information] from the city manager … versus the overall emergency operations experts on this?” Hines asked.

“I think their mayor supports [the tent city], too,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said, referring to Ahearn-Koch. Detert then reminded her colleagues that Ahearn-Koch had asked to speak one-on-one with the county board members about how best to help the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

As for the tent city proposal, Detert continued, “I’ve learned, don’t start a program that’s supposed to be temporary unless you have an exit strategy, because there’s no give-back later.”

She asked her colleagues to “picture the exit strategy: We tear down the tents and tell [the homeless], ‘No bed or food, and we’re going to move you back to the [downtown Sarasota] bus station.’”
She added of the city commissioners, “If they want us to join in, I suggest they pass something themselves and send it over and we’ll take a look at it.”

At that point, Henry of the Health Department stepped to the podium to explain, “I have not formally come out and said I’m against this [central facility] or that I’m for it.” He, too, he said, had asked City Manager Barwin for more information to help him understand why Barwin is pressing for relocating the homeless to a location such as the fairgrounds.

“My understanding,” Henry continued, “is that the real concern about this is [a lack of] social distancing [among the homeless in the city],” especially when agencies are providing them meals. The Health Department, he added, had assigned an Environmental Health Team to help those agencies ensure that social distancing is practiced.

The Executive Policy Group’s questions “were very appropriate,” Henry also pointed out. Concerns about social distancing would arise in a camp for the homeless, he said.

Moreover, Henry told the county commissioners, “I have a fair amount of expertise … with camp sanitation,” having spent years in military service. “That’s another whole ball of wax.”