City manager proposes new strategy in effort to revive discussions on homelessness

County Commission discussion of plan anticipated as part of its Nov. 17 update on county efforts to find a shelter site

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

During the Monday, Nov. 16, Sarasota City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin added a new plan into the mix regarding what many residents view as the region’s most controversial dilemma.

Barwin’s presentation during the board’s afternoon session came amid faltering discussions between the city and Sarasota County over how to address the issue of chronic homelessness — including where to locate a come-as-you-are shelter. His strategy calls for the relocation of a mid-county Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office training facility from a proposed site on Cattlemen Road to the former Sarasota Police Department property on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. Conversely, he suggests shifting the homeless shelter to the site reserved for the training facility.

Barwin and the City Commissioners left their Nov. 17 afternoon session on a hopeful note, but the new plan has yet to be vetted by county officials.

“I am going to make the call now” to County Administrator Tom Harmer, Barwin told The Sarasota News Leader at the conclusion of the afternoon session.

Mayor Willie Shaw, who called Barwin’s plan a “win-win,” said the proposal has the potential to solve two issues. First, it identifies a shelter site; second, it resolves a lingering issue over the conveyance of ownership of the former police department property from the city to the county. County board members have repeatedly asked the City Commission to endorse a site where it would accept a shelter.

Recently, the city has pursued a Housing First option in its approach to chronic homelessness in the community, but county commissioners and staff have continued to focus on establishing a shelter operated by the Sheriff’s Office. The County Commission is scheduled to hear an update on Tuesday, Nov. 17, regarding its staff’s latest search for a shelter site. During its morning session — which begins at 9 a.m. at the County Administration Center in Sarasota — the county board will hear an update from Wayne R. Applebee, its director of services for the homeless.

“They’ve asked us to offer an alternative,” Shaw told the News Leader. “This is one.”

As presented by the city manager on Monday, the shelter would be located next to the new Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center on a Public Safety Campus that would include the Sheriff’s Office administrative facilities.

Public Safety Campus for BCC Nov. 9 2015 rendering
Sarasota County staff has proposed this plan for a new Public Safety Campus on Cattlemen Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The nearby Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus transfer station would make the Cattlemen site a good option for a shelter, Barwin said Monday. Thanks to the bus service, the location would be accessible from Venice and North Port, and it is only 5 miles from the city limits, he pointed out. The more central location also has the potential to provide better security, Barwin said, adding that it seemed more appropriate for the type of jail-diversion program the county has been emphasizing.

Barwin also talked in greater detail about a state-of-the-art training center on the 1-acre, vacant former site of the city Police Department site. “It is a brilliant opportunity for the city to participate with the county to build a training center,” Barwin said. “It could serve all the city and county employees,” especially those who work downtown, he added.

When Barwin asked the city commissioners whether he had their support to present his plan to county staff, they gave him the go-ahead.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” said Commissioner Liz Alpert, who nodded in agreement as Barwin discussed the proposal.

Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell added that she believes this could prove to be the type of new focus for city and county collaboration that she has been seeking.

“I think we are really coming up with something, and I think we should transmit it to them as soon as possible,” Atwell said of the county commissioners.

Atwell added that she thought the plan offered the possibility for taxpayer savings. “It makes a great deal of sense.”

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said any possible savings on the site plan could be applied to city proposals for increasing mental health services for the homeless.

Commissioner Susan Chapman noted that the Cattlemen Road property was suggested in previous discussions about shelter locations, but county leaders did not express enthusiasm about the option. “I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I know early on we suggested this site,” Chapman said. City staff still should keep looking for alternative sites, she added.

For more on this story, please see the Nov. 20 issue of The Sarasota News Leader.