Collaboration on homelessness sputters in wake of County Commission’s rescission of Nov. 6 vote

County board directs staff to continue due diligence on shelter sites in unincorporated Sarasota County

Homeless people gather in a downtown Sarasota park in early 2014. News Leader archive
Homeless people gather in a downtown Sarasota park in early 2014. News Leader archive

Last week, they seemed to have found considerable common ground. Today, once again, it appears they will be moving along separate paths — though the door to reach that common ground in the future has not been shut.

On Nov. 6, the Sarasota City and County commissions put aside unanswered questions and unsolved challenges to take a cohesive approach toward addressing chronic homelessness in the community. The two boards voted separately — and unanimously — to direct their staffs to try to reach consensus within 30 days — 45 at the most — on specific points. Their action 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 boards’ 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. Both boards approved motions to have their staffs collaborate on a plan that would incorporate a shelter and housing. Following the Nov. 6 meeting, City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie told The Sarasota News Leader she was hopeful that 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.

Yet on Monday, Nov. 9, the County Commission rescinded the motion it approved on Nov. 6 and voted unanimously, 4-0, to move forward with efforts to build a homeless shelter. The commissioners directed county staff to continue due diligence on potential sites in unincorporated North Sarasota County and to take necessary steps in negotiating terms of a contract. The motion also called for staff to work on funding strategies for the shelter.

Commissioner Christine Robinson first raised the topic at the conclusion of the board’s morning business; it was not advertised as a discussion item on the Nov. 9 agenda. Robinson alluded to an email from Thaxton, citing it as the basis for her concern about the action the board took on Friday.

Thaxton made it clear in his Nov. 8 email to Mayor Willie Shaw and to county board Chair Carolyn Mason that he felt the Gulf Coast Community Foundation no longer should take the lead in helping the city and county staff members draft a set of recommendations. Robinson referenced that leadership role in her Nov. 6 motion.

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. Photo courtesy of Sarasota County
Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton. Photo courtesy of Sarasota County

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.”

In the afternoon, after the commissioners concluded their regular business, Vice Chair Al Maio — acting in place of absent Chair Mason — asked whether anyone had any 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, followed by the decision to rescind the Nov. 6 vote.

By the end of the day Monday, the News Leader learned, city staff had not formally been made aware of the County Commission votes.

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 at 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.

But Thaxton 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. The two approaches can be combined, he said, and 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 reduces 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 Commissioner Alan Maio on Monday made a point very similar to Thaxton’s. “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.”

For a more comprehensive report on the topic, please see the Nov. 13 issue of the The Sarasota News Leader.