City of Sarasota, local agencies collaborate on Florida’s first court for homeless individuals

Positive results seen in just six months

The Community Care Court is conducted at the Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. File photo

To help address the root causes of chronic homelessness, the City of Sarasota in January launched the first court in the state of Florida for homeless individuals. The city has collaborated on the initiative with the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, the Office of the State Attorney, the Office of the Public Defender, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, a city news release explains.

That court recently marked its six-month anniversary, the release points out.

Known as Community Care Court, its cases are limited to those involving “homeless individuals charged with minor criminal activity within the Sarasota city limits,” the release says.

Homeless individuals facing non-violent misdemeanors or criminal violations of the Sarasota City Code — such as having an open alcoholic beverage container on a public street, trespassing, lodging out of doors and public urination — “may be eligible for this specialized court, “which focuses on causes and solutions for homelessness,” the release continues. “Individuals who volunteer to opt into the program may be diverted into available social service programs in the region’s Continuum of Care,” it adds, or sent to other service providers for mental health screening, drug/alcohol assessment, and employment and housing opportunities.

“This is one of the first specialized courts of its kind in Florida focusing on a path to end homelessness,” said County Court Judge David Denkin of Community Care Court and the 12th Judicial Circuit, in the release. “If we truly want to end homelessness,” he added in the release, “then we invest in prevention and support communities and programs to implement these life-changing efforts.”

County Judge David Denkin. Image courtesy 12th Judicial Circuit Court

For the purpose of continuity, “a dedicated team of legal and homelessness professionals is assigned to Community Care Court,” the release says. The same judge presides over the cases, working with the same public defender, assistant state attorney, city attorney, homeless outreach coordinator and case managers — “all becoming familiar with a homeless individual’s situation and progress over time,” the release notes.

“The criminal justice system is very busy,” said Kevin Stiff, the city’s homelessness response coordinator, in the release. “It is nearly impossible for the system to identify the frequency [of court appearances] and challenges some clients may have. Clients can appear in front of numerous different judges and attorneys in one year’s time,” he pointed out in the release. “The continuity with the Community Care Court allows for the same team to be aware of the number of times each client is offending, the type of charges and location of the offenses,” he added. “This knowledge will help determine what services can be offered to break the cycle of criminal behavior or the client’s unwillingness to avoid unacceptable behavior.”

“The Community Care Court team meets regularly to share case progress reports and make recommendations to the judge regarding compliance,” the release explains. Upon a person’s completion of designated social service programs, the misdemeanor charge may be dismissed without a fine or the penalty reduced.

“Community Care Court is yet another way to attempt to end the costly circle with revolving-door, chronic homeless individuals who are repeat code and law violators in Sarasota,” said City Manager Tom Barwin in the release. “Some of these individuals have been cited as many as 90 times for various infractions. Our Homeless Outreach Teams with street level social workers have reached out to most of these individuals repeatedly, offering assistance to get them off the street and into a safe, healthy living environment,” Barwin continued in the release. “But they continue to reside on the street. This specialized court provides a real opportunity to better address the root cause of the individual’s homelessness through the criminal justice system which [he or she] defaulted into.”

Results already realized

The Sarasota Community Care Court began on Jan. 8, the release notes. Since then, 21 individuals voluntarily have entered the program and five have graduated, with the criminal charges dismissed. Three were successfully moved into housing, the release adds.

“Already we’re seeing real impact in people’s lives and in our community,” said Assistant City Attorney Joe Polzak in the release. “After declining the many social services available through outreach and pre-arrest diversion, these individuals, while faced with the possibility of serving time, have the option to engage assistance where they can be assessed and treated, and ultimately, placed into employment and appropriate housing,” he added in the release.

The American Bar Association recently adopted a resolution urging local courts to establish homeless court programs as a way to help chronically homeless people make the transition from the streets through social services and ultimately to self-sufficiency, the release points out.

Jon Thaxton. Photo from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation website

“We are pleased to partner with the City of Sarasota in identifying, assessing and offering services to those homeless individuals that enter the criminal justice system,” said Ed Brodsky, state attorney of the 12th Judicial Circuit, in the release. “We hope through this partnership to help end homelessness for those we serve.”

Community Care Court differs from the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC) established in Sarasota several years ago in that CTC is a jail diversion program solely for misdemeanor offenders with chronic mental illness, the release explains.

“The Gulf Coast Community Foundation generously donated $15,000 toward the cost of Community Care Court,” the release points out.

“We can’t overlook the less visible and more vulnerable in our communities, so it is imperative that philanthropy is part of the solution to this community-wide issue,” said Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast Community Foundation senior vice president for community investment.

A multi-faceted approach

“Created in 2014, the City of Sarasota’s homeless outreach program has become a national model for cities seeking jail diversion programs by emphasizing the 3 E’s: education, encouragement and enforcement,” the release points out.

Two Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT), comprising a city staff case manager and a Sarasota Police Department officer, interact with homeless individuals on a regular basis, encouraging them to move off the street “by offering to connect them with available social services through outreach and pre-arrest diversion,” the release explains.

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

Through an agreement with The Salvation Army, 20 beds are reserved for chronically homeless individuals who need shelter. Those interested in a bed may be transported to The Salvation Army rather than cited for a minor violation, the release notes.

Additionally, in conjunction with The Salvation Army, the city supports the Street Teams, “a program that provides a safe, stable environment and work experience for the homeless,” the release adds.

“Through strong partnerships with the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and the Continuum of Care, coupled with the community’s commitment, homelessness in the Sarasota city limits has decreased by over 50 percent in the past four years,” the release says. That decline was shown in the most recent, annual Point in Time count of homeless individuals. The survey, required by the federal government, was conducted in January by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.