City of Sarasota’s efforts to help the homeless considered among best practices in nation, City Commission hears

April 1 presentation highlights work of Homeless Outreach Teams and other initiatives

Homeless people gather outside Selby Library in downtown Sarasota in 2013. File photo

 In early 2006, Sarasota was named the meanest city in the nation in terms of treatment of homeless individuals.

The National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness accorded the city that distinction, following the city’s imposition of a no camping ban, as The Seattle Times pointed out in a Jan. 13, 2006 article. The city beat out municipalities such as Atlanta, New York and San Francisco.

“Sarasota officials say the no-lodging rule helps keep the city’s homeless out of unsafe and unhealthy camps,” The Times added. “Forty-five people were arrested last year for violating the ordinance, which gives police the option of transporting suspects to a shelter instead of jail,” The Times noted.

Eighteen years later, thanks to the work of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) members and collaboration with a number of nonprofit agencies, the city is part of a national study regarding best practices for helping the homeless. Dede Jones, the city’s coordinator of response to homelessness, delivered that news during an April 1 presentation to the City Commission.

“We have gained a lot of attention nationwide, actually internationally, ’cause we actually had Canada reach out to us to see how we’re doing things,” Jones told the commissioners.

Sarasota is one of about five cities across the United States that are the focus of the study, Jones said. Representatives of the National Institute of Justice interviewed HOT team members and her about how the city’s program began and why it has proven so effective, Jones added.

Material that Jones provided the commissioners in their agenda packet for the April 1 meeting noted that two Homeless Outreach Teams were established in 2014. Case managers work alongside Sarasota Police Department officers “to offer services to the individuals experiencing homelessness in our community,” the document explained.

The document lists the following agencies — along officers from Barrie, Ontario — that reached out to the HOT members in 2023:

  • A member of the Newark, Ohio, City Council.
  • A representative of the Western Piedmont Council of Governments in Hickory, N.C.
  • The Fort Myers Police Department.
  • The St. Joseph, Missouri, Police Department.
  • The Bradenton Police Department.
  • The Hagerstown, Md., Police Department.
  • The Venice Police Department.
  • The Cary, N.C., Police Department.

In terms of services to the homeless in Sarasota, the document in the agenda packet pointed out that the city contracts with The Salvation Army of Sarasota for 20 beds that can be used for any person who has been sleeping outdoors, with the goal of encouraging the individual to accept assistance with physical and mental health issues — including substance abuse — along with opportunities to find employment and housing.

Historically, the document continued, the Salvation Army provided “emergency mats” for Sarasota Police officers “to utilize when needed.” However, Jones told the commissioners on April 1 what the document also reported — that the Salvation Army has transitioned to an Emergency Shelter Program, which provides “free beds for unsheltered individuals that have the desire to improve their circumstances working towards a housing option.”

The city paid $292,000 for the HOT beds during the 2022-23 fiscal year, plus $73,000 for five “bridge beds” for HOT clients who have been referred to a housing program through the Continuum of Care, which the nonprofit Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness supports in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Commissioner Erik Arroyo emphasized that the Salvation Army program is free, a fact that all city residents need to know, he indicated.

He did ask Jones whether the city should reduce the number of beds it asks the Salvation Army to hold, given the 46% usage figure for the past fiscal year.

(From left) Sgt. Jaime Morrison, Dede Jones, Carly Briesemeister and Krystal DeGroot appear before the City Commission on April 1. Both Briesemeister and DeGroot are case management workers. News Leader image

Jones recommended against a reduction, adding, “We could be at max all the time …” Moreover, she emphasized, the city’s Lodging Out of Doors Ordinance requires the city to have beds available for emergency shelter.

Sgt. Jaime Morrison of the Sarasota Police Department pointed out that some homeless persons do not like the Salvation Army and refuse to accept shelter there. Yet, the HOT members will continue to encourage all of those on the street who have not accepted help to keep considering the options available, she said.

(The Police Department’s Facebook page notes that Morrison joined the Homeless Outreach Teams in 2018 as an officer. When the position of sergeant for the HOTs opened in 2021, the post adds, she won it.)

More avenues for assistance

Among other initiatives for the homeless in the community is the Community Care Court, which was established through collaboration with the Suncoast Partnership, the April 1 agenda material noted. “This specialty court is specific to individuals experiencing homelessness that receive [a] summons to appear in court for violations of city ordinances and misdemeanor crimes,” the document pointed out.

“The goal of this treatment court is to reduce recidivism and assist participants in improving their quality of life. There are several community partners that are involved to assist participants in all areas of life. This specialty court is primarily used by Sarasota Police Department,” the document added.

Jones, the homelessness response coordinator, acknowledged that some homeless individuals do end up spending a night in jail, nonetheless.

Morrison explained, “If we have to, we do have enforcement … [and that is] not always a bad thing.” She added that people who have spent the night in jail have thanked her afterward, saying, “ ‘That’s what I needed.’ ”

Another program is the Street Teams, which is managed by the Salvation Army.

These Street Team members are collecting garbage in Sarasota in December 2023. Photo from the Facebook page of The Salvation Army of Sarasota County

Visitors and residents see the team members in bright yellow shirts picking up trash in downtown Sarasota in the mornings, Jones noted. “They have really good case management in that program.”

The document in the agenda packet explained, “Street Teams participants [who must be able-bodied] volunteer Monday through Friday with the City of Sarasota for four hours each morning, seeking employment and housing in the afternoon. Street Teams help keep Newtown and downtown Sarasota beautiful, making the streets free of litter. Annually, Street Teams removes an estimated 64 tons of trash off the streets of Sarasota. The Salvation Army provides accommodations including 3 meals per day, supervision, housing search assistance, and employment assistance.”

In the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the document said, the Street Teams worked 7,352 hours, which was up from 5,380 in the 2021-22 fiscal year.

The document also indicated that, in the 2022-23 fiscal year, 41 of the 59 participants were able to find housing, while 35 of the individuals obtained employment.

Altogether, the document in the agenda packet said, the city paid $675,000 during the last fiscal year to provide specific services to individuals experiencing homelessness.

A years-long downward trend

During the City Commission meeting, Jones also presented statistics from the agenda document about the work of the HOTs, though she explained that the totals could reflect multiple counts of the same persons. “It takes several points of contact with some or more chronically homeless individuals,” she said, to convince them to accept assistance.

Each year, the Suncoast Partnership seeks volunteers to help with the Point in Time count, which is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), she told the commissioners. The people handling the counts try to find every homeless individual, Jones added. Nonetheless, if a homeless person does not wish to answer questions for the survey, the protocol is not to push the person to do so, she indicated.

“We know it is not 100% accurate,” she said of the annual count.

In 2023, the Point in Time survey found only 80 homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota, the report noted. That figure was down 77.21%, compared to the 222 total in the 2022 Point in Time survey.

These are data collected during the 2023 Point in Time count. Image courtesy Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness

In 2018, a table shows, the total number of homeless individuals in the city was 351. In 2017, it was 429; in 2016, the total was 632.

Chronically homeless individuals are included in the totals, Jones said. She identified such persons as those who have been without a home for a year or longer, as well as those who have been homeless a minimum of three times over two years.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked what a person should do if that person sees an unsheltered individual on a street and the latter is asking for food or shoes, for examples.

No one should give such individuals money, Jones replied. “That is not long-term help for them.”

The goal would be to try to connect them to a case manager, Jones continued.

A person can google the Sarasota Police Department Homeless Outreach Team, Jones said, to find a phone number for the Homeless Outreach Teams.

Additionally, case manager Carly Briesemeister noted, a person who has encountered a homeless individual can call the non-emergency phone number for the Police Department, which is 941-316-1199. The person can request that a HOT officer come to the scene and meet directly with the homeless individual, she added.

Sgt. Morrison added that all of the Sarasota Police officers have had cross training in helping the homeless, though only the HOT members typically are up-to-date on the most current information. Nonetheless, Morrison pointed out, any officer can assist someone who is homeless or in crisis.

When Ahearn-Koch asked whether such cross training is common, Morrison told her that the Police Department is “unusual with that …” Other law enforcement agencies reach out to the Sarasota Police Department constantly, Morrison added, to gain more information about how its officers work with the homeless.

Commissioner Kyle Battie related an anecdote about finding a homeless African American couple sleeping outside City Hall one cold winter night as he was leaving the building. When he asked if they would like lodging, and they responded affirmatively, he indicated, he was able to reach a HOT member.

Battie told Morrison, “The response, you know, from your team was immediate. The engagement, you know, was compassionate … and humane most of all.”