County commissioner criticizes Sarasota city manager’s proposal for ‘tent city’ to ensure homeless people have adequate protection and aid during public health crisis

Mayor Ahearn-Koch seeking collaboration between city and county on best ways to help ‘very vulnerable population’

Commissioner Charles Hines makes a point during the March 24 discussion. News Leader image

Sarasota County Commissioner Charles Hines this week raised an alarm about what he described as a potential plan for a “tent city” for the homeless in the community, as local leaders work to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

During his board’s regular meeting on March 24, Hines told his colleagues he believed they all had heard from Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, who had asked to speak with them one-on-one on the telephone about their thoughts regarding assistance to the homeless population during the crisis.

Hines attributed the “tent city” idea to City Manager Tom Barwin, adding that Barwin is “not a policy maker.” That responsibility rests with the City Commission, Hines added.

“This is something that’s never been discussed,” Hines stressed of the “tent city” proposal. “It’s not part of our plan to deal with the homeless.”

Just two weeks ago, Hines pointed out, the County Commission directed its staff to work on securing permanent emergency shelter beds in South County, to meet the needs of homeless individuals in that area who do not wish to travel to the city of Sarasota, where the Salvation Army offers such facilities. That was a step the City Commission had been urging the county board to take, Hines noted.

“I don’t know where this is coming from,” he continued, referring to the tent city idea. “They’ve never voted on it, to my knowledge,” he added of the city commissioners.

Moreover, Hines said, he was not aware that the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness or any foundation in the county had suggested such a measure is needed. “This type of thing should not slide in” as part of the COVID-19 response, Hines added. “That’s inappropriate.”

If such an idea is being proposed, he said, “It needs to be discussed publicly.”

Based on experiences in other municipalities, Hines pointed out, if a tent city were established for homeless people, then the residents would have the legal right to remain in the facilities, even if community leaders wanted to remove it. He encouraged his colleagues to research what happened in that regard in Alachua County.

“Have that discussion with her,” he urged his colleagues, referring to Mayor Ahearn-Koch. ”I’m going to.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler responded, “I was made aware of this, and I’m not crazy about it, either.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler responds to Commissioner Charles Hines on March 24. News Leader image

Ziegler added, “We need legitimate solutions for the problems that exist …”
His understanding, he continued, was that Chuck Henry, director of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County and director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, had advised against the city proposal. “We need to take his guidance … He runs point; he’s an expert on [the COVID-19 response].”

When The Sarasota News Leader contacted Ahearn-Koch on March 24 to ask about the county commissioners’ comments, she responded in an email, “I called the County office yesterday and spoke to the Administrative Assistant about getting the telephone numbers of the County Commissioners so I could call each of them directly or they call me, one-on-one, to have clear lines of communication so I can get direct updates on all that we are doing and trying to coordinate between the County and City and share information — County Commissioner to City Commissioner which is permitted.”

She added, “One of those topics for discussion (and I only talked to Commissioner Hines [on March 24] after the County Commission meeting) is having a plan to help shelter and take care of our very vulnerable homeless population in the City and County.”

She did provide the News Leader a copy of an email Hines sent her prior to the County Commission meeting. With a time stamp of 8:35 a.m., the email said, “I will call you after our meeting today to discuss C-19. We also need to talk about what I am hearing, that your Administrator is promoting the idea (policy), without your commission’s input/vote, the public’s, the private foundations, or our input, for a tent city for the homeless. This has never been part of our plan to address the homeless. Talk to you soon.”

Then, on March 25, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the City of Sarasota, provided the News Leader a copy of  emails exchanged among City Manager Barwin, Henry of the Health Department, and Wayne Applebee, senior manager in the county’s Health and Human Services Department, who has been a key county staff member among those addressing homelessness. Thornburg added that she felt the exchanges might have been the focus of Hines’ remarks the previous day.

At 10:50 a.m. on March 22, with the subject line, “Unsheltered Homeless Population,” Barwin wrote Henry and Applebee the following:

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

“I know we have all been swamped since the onset of the continuing Covid-19 challenge. The unsheltered population remains to be addressed. Since our conference calls last week the challenge remains and decisions and an action plan is needed within the next 24 hours.

“We appreciate your efforts to get direction from [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] FEMA and Public Health. The following matters must be addressed:

“[A]n ample supply of personal protection equipment must be provided to all homeless outreach team members, caseworkers and first responders interacting with this population throughout the county.

“Policy decisions must be made on how to isolate homeless individuals who exhibit the symptoms of Covid-19, in light of the [Salvation Army] shelter not being equipped or laid out to perform that role.

“To minimize the risk of the spread of Covid-19 in the unsheltered population and/or by them to volunteers working with this community, emergency-temporary sheltering and basic hygiene and nutrition arrangements must be considered … [It] seems this [novel coronavirus] period or situation will be in place for a minimus of 30 to 60 days. Because personal spacing is an essential element to tamp down the risk of the spread of Covid-19, the options seem to be, hotel rooms, or securing affordable trailer units where available, or securing [and] equipping a large enough building to accommodate the numbers of the unsheltered who would take advantage of the emergency arrangements, [and/or] the creation of pod(s) that could respond to the 100 or so who come in and out of the city for services, [along with homeless people from the middle part of the county and South County]. If under these circumstances a large traditional FEMA type tent/compound is not appropriate for public health reasons, perhaps an area large enough to accommodate small individual tents, spaced appropriately, with hand washing stations, port-a-lets [and] a food truck would be [sufficient.]. Once the threat has passed the facility would be disbanded. Staffing could begin to be addressed beginning with our current service providers network, or other volunteers, or city, county, state municipal workers who have had their normal job activities curtailed during this emergency.

“These are some of the ideas generated here and around the country. Thank you for your attention and consideration of this matter,” Barwin added.

Henry replied at 1:52 p.m. on March 22: “I appreciate you sharing these thoughts with our planning teams. We will continue to work through these issues as quickly as possible.”

Barwin responded to him within about 12 minutes: “I have spoken with several of the unsheltered today. There is a growing sense of urgency amongst them as almost everything is now shut down. I believe they [would] welcome a simple plan and I believe most will cooperate. The property to the rear of the county [fairgrounds, which is located on Fruitville Road,] would be perhaps the best for our area. I believe County health has a relationship with [the county Fair Board members] and perhaps they could be compensated for the use of a limited area on the south portion of the property.”

Update from the Suncoast Partnership to city leaders

In light of concerns about the care of the homeless during the COVID-19 crisis, the CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homeless, Chris Johnson, provided an update to community leaders this week. City Manager Barwin forwarded it to the city commissioners on March 23, adding that it is “a good summary of the current operating strategies/levels for many of the [region’s] primary social [service] providers.”

An aerial view shows the Salvation Army facilities at 1400 10th St. in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Among the details, Johnson included this information about the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter, the Center of Hope, located at 1400 10th St. in Sarasota:

  • “Overnight shelter is operating, with heightened precautions and [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC recommendations.
  • “Nightly community dinner is sack-style with neighbors’ dinner being served outside on back porch and yard area.
  • “Thursday Open Lunch is cancelled indefinitely.”
  • Public bathrooms outdoors and in the back porch area are open from 4 to 9 p.m.
  • Showers for overnight guests are available from 7 to 9 p.m.
  • All residential programs are operating with heightened precautions and CDC recommendations; no new intakes allowed until further notice.
  • “Meetings on campus are cancelled or will be relocated to another location.”
  • The Center of Hope Ministry will still have Sunday services from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.; those will be open only to residential participants.
  • “Non-essential volunteers and mentors are asked not to come until further notice.”
  • Essential transportation is provided only for residential clients.

Johnson also noted that the Salvation Army’s Emergency Financial Assistance Services and Family Services, which operate out of a facility located at 1750 17th St., will continue through the following methods: telephone, mail, email and fax.

Further, Johnson reported on the actions taken by certain social services providers in the area.

In an effort to protect staff and clients, First Step of Sarasota and Coastal Behavioral Healthcare have revised the protocols for the majority of their outpatient services, replacing in-person assistance with “telehealth” and contacts by telephone, Johnson noted. (Coastal Behavioral serves children, adolescents, adults, senior citizens and families struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues, its website explains. First Step “prevents and treats alcohol and drug addictions and associated disorders,” its website notes.)

“Our doors will be locked and only staff members will be permitted in the offices with very few exceptions,” First Step and Coastal had advised Johnson, he wrote.

This is one banner on the homepage of the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center website. Image from the website

The following also was in his email:

  • JFCS of the Suncoast offices at the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center in Sarasota are closed for the purposes of walk-in services. However, the staff members are working remotely and continuing to assist clients. “We will be putting a sign on the door with contact information for any clients needing assistance,” the JFCS notice added.
  • All Faiths Food Bank is continuing to use the Glasser/Schoenbaum Center parking lot for its mobile food pantry. The Food Bank “has incorporated measures to safeguard the health of [its] staff, volunteers and clients by going to a drive-thru style distribution,” Johnson’s update added.