County Commission to decide on next steps on homelessness after seeing report expected in March from a City of Sarasota consultant

City and county leaders’ views continue to reflect different priorities, with long-term funding and triage among top county concerns

Homeless people gather in Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota in August 2016. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

One Sarasota County commissioner this week suggested the board ask staff to research the establishment of a special taxing district to provide ongoing funds for solutions to homelessness in the community. Others continued to press for an emergency triage facility, although the Sarasota city commissioners continue to insist on Housing First as their top priority.

After almost 35 minutes of discussion on Feb. 7, Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services for the homeless, said he believes the city and county viewpoints are not that far apart in the effort to reach agreement on the best steps forward. He based that on several years of discussions with representatives of the City of Sarasota, the community foundations and providers of mental health services, he added. When the two commissions last held a joint meeting on homelessness — in November 2015 — Applebee noted this week that the 10 board members recognized an emergency triage facility needs “to be part of the system.”

“Apparently, the [city] administration didn’t,” Chair Paul Caragiulo — a former city commissioner — told Applebee. Yet, Robert Marbut, the nationally recognized consultant on homelessness issues the city and county hired in 2013, pointed out in one of his first reports to the boards “that there is a permanent supportive housing problem,” Caragiulo said. “We’re being driven into a debate about this or that,” Caragiulo added. “It’s a whole system. Hopefully, we can just get to the point where we can have our colleagues acknowledge that it is a whole system.”

Although he has been “accused of being cautiously optimistic,” Applebee replied, “I really think that there is a hunger for a solution [among all parties].”

County Administrator Tom Harmer. File photo

Before taking further steps themselves on the issue, County Administrator Tom Harmer advised the commissioners to await the results of a report a City of Sarasota consultant is expected to release in March. “After it comes [out], we can take some direction from there.”

Applebee had explained that the City Commission had contracted with a consultant from the Florida Housing Coalition to re-evaluate how to assist people living on the streets with getting into housing. Applebee added that he has been participating in sessions with the consultant and city staff since then, and he has provided data and historical, objective material to the consultant.

Referring to the city’s Housing First focus, Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, “It’s actually ‘housing last,’” because homeless individuals have to go through some type of triage before they can be placed in housing. Referring to the city commissioners, she continued, “I think they have heard us on the Housing First proposal.” After the County Commission gets a copy of the city consultant’s report, she added, the board should conduct a workshop on its findings.

What that consultant is going to say, Commissioner Charles Hines predicted, is that permanent supportive housing should be the community’s top priority.

Yet, as Commissioner Mike Moran and Applebee both noted, the community has no recurring funding to pay for a long-term approach to helping the homeless. Applebee said he and his staff already are working on their budget for the 2019 fiscal year, trying to identify sources of money that can be used to continue a program begun by Sheriff Tom Knight and his staff to assist the homeless, as well as the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC) for which county Judge Erika Quartermaine won a three-year state grant.

The City and County of Sarasota and nonprofit foundations in the community provided the match Quartermaine needed for her application for the $400,000 in assistance from the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“A comprehensive solution to this is just incredibly expensive,” Moran said of helping the homeless, including providing housing.

Commissioner Mike Moran. Rachel Hackney photo

Although the idea of a special taxing district was broached in 2015, Applebee replied, “I don’t think [it] was ever fully vetted for the community.” Yet, he continued, he has heard from representatives of the community’s foundations that they believe individuals will be more inclined to contribute to programs for the homeless after a sustainable source of revenue has been established.

When Moran asked if Applebee were comfortable with exploring options for such a revenue stream, Applebee replied, “Yes. Sure.”

Asked how long he expected that initiative to take, Applebee responded that he believed he and his staff would need 60 to 90 days “to really look at those options in-depth and prepare an agenda item [for the board].”

Detert then noted that the state ranks 49th in the nation for mental health funding, and many of the issues related to homelessness involve mental health treatment. “If we have the world’s greatest plan and unlimited funds,” she said, the problem at that point would be insufficient providers of services.

Applebee acknowledged that the community has only two: Centerstone, which will work with the CTC, and Coastal Behavioral Healthcare, which serves Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee counties.

Applebee concurred that the lack of rate increases for providers in the state over the past 15 years has led to the current situation.

Two views

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Hines explained to his colleagues on Feb. 7 that he was among about 50 people who participated in an exercise on Feb. 1 and Feb. 2, focusing on homelessness, related mental health issues and plans for the Comprehensive Treatment Court.

As Quartermaine described it to the City and County commissions last year, the program is designed to keep people — especially homeless individuals — from repeatedly being jailed for offenses linked to behavioral health problems.

The purpose of the Sequential Intercept Mapping Exercise Hines referenced was to identify the behavioral health services available to homeless people who enter the criminal justice system, along with the gaps in assistance, Applebee said.

The sessions were made possible through the state grant, Applebee added. The contract for that grant was just signed on Feb. 1, he pointed out.

Most of the participants in the exercise represented the criminal justice system and providers of behavioral health services, Hines noted.

During the exercise, Hines said, the facilitator came to the conclusion that long-term supportive housing for homeless people identified with chronic mental health problems should be the top priority. Yet, Hines pointed out, housing comes “at the end, after someone has worked their way through the system. They’ve got their medication stabilized; they’ve met with psychologists and law enforcement …” By that point, he added, the hope is that the person also has secured employment. “That end may take a week; it may take a year.”

The issue of triage did not even come up until three hours into the discussion, he noted. “What the city would like to see,” he believes, “is a virtual triage center,” making use of beds for which the city and the county already contract through the Sheriff’s Office program — SHIFTS — and The Salvation Army.

Although Marbut, the city and county consultant hired in 2013, recommended a brick-and-mortar triage center close to the providers of services homeless people need, Hines noted, the City Commission and city staff have refused to allow a large facility — capable of sheltering several hundred people — near downtown Sarasota, where those services are available.

Wayne Applebee. File photo

The facilitator during the Feb. 1-2 exercise, Hines said, did mention a triage center in Fort Myers, which has about 56 beds. If the city leaders were agreeable, Hines added, “maybe we could do a smaller type [facility],” or perhaps the two local government bodies could provide more funding to expand the bed capacity through SHIFTS and The Salvation Army.

The evening before the County Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin reported to his board about the exercise with the facilitator. He noted that Capt. Kevin Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team also participated in it.

After 12 hours of discussion, Barwin concurred with Hines, the top priority the facilitator pointed to was “permanent supportive housing.”

Barwin also talked of “virtual triage.” If immediate shelter is needed, he said, the consensus was that it should be a matter of making use of existing resources, with maximum coordination among all parties. He added that he also believed he heard a call for “geographical balance within this entire county.”

The third objective the group settled on, Barwin said, is getting as much additional psychological and mental health assistance as possible for the homeless people who need it. The fourth goal, he continued, is to help the homeless find jobs.

“Finally,” he told the city commissioners, “I think we’ve got that common ground and consensus.”

What he believes the County Commission needs to do, Hines told his board the next day, is settle on a policy that will guide what the county buys or builds or pays for to help what he referred to as the people “on the front end: the guy on the street [with a sign saying,] ‘I will work for food,’” and people sleeping in the parks.

“We need a triage type center,” Hines added. “Right now, it is jail or Sarasota Memorial Hospital.”