County commissioners call for faster implementation of ordinances and consultant’s recommendations for resolving issues relating to homelessness

Commissioner Charles Hines cites need to secure extra emergency beds at The Salvation Army and volunteers to help achieve countywide ‘buy-in’ on the new laws

A homeless person camps in Bayfront Park in downtown Sarasota. Image from the City of Sarasota

Two Sarasota County commissioners this week agreed that efforts to implement a new set of laws to deal with issues related to homelessness in the community — such as panhandling — need to be on as fast a track as possible.

One also called for a fast pace to ensure more emergency shelter beds are made available in the community, as a consultant has recommended.

Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out on May 9 that the county will welcome tens of thousands of visitors in September as the World Rowing Championships get underway at Nathan Benderson Park.

“You’re going to have the world coming to Sarasota County,” he said. “They’re going to go to downtown Sarasota. I sure don’t want to see a report from France or England on how poorly we are managing the … panhandlers … because we failed to implement [in a timely fashion] a policy that we’ve been talking about for three years.”

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

However, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh and County Administrator Tom Harmer indicated that one critical component they cannot predict in the timeline is when county staff will achieve confirmation that the leaders of all the county’s municipalities have reviewed the revised laws and will be willing to implement similar measures.

As Hines characterized it, DeMarsh and Harmer were arguing for “countywide buy-in.” Hines concurred with their call for unity in enforcement, but he indicated that achieving consensus should not be excessively time-consuming.

“It’s not that hard,” Hines added, to make sure all the elected officials and administrative staffs of the three cities and the Town of Longboat Key review the proposal soon after the draft has been completed. He volunteered to put a copy of the document into the hands of all the elected leaders, if the municipalities’ top staff will not accept that responsibility.

Hines also pointed out that county staff and the county commissioners are working on the 2018 fiscal year budget. They need to ascertain which entities receiving county funds to help the homeless will abide by the new county laws, he said. The commissioners should provide financial support only to those that will do so, he indicated.

Commissioner Alan Maio also noted that the board will be taking its month-long summer break starting in mid-July; staff needs to keep that in mind as it plans for a public hearing on the ordinance.

In the meantime, Harmer pointed out that the board’s May 23 agenda will include an item seeking commission authorization to advertise a new ordinance regarding county park hours and operations. The plan is to hold a public hearing on the regulations on June 6, Harmer said.

One primary factor in implementing that revised law, Hines pointed out, will be enforcement. He emphasized that the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office must be involved in the discussion. “That’s who’s going to get called out at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said, if, for example, a homeless person is found camping in a county park that closed hours earlier.

How will the Sheriff’s Office enforce the new law?, he asked. Will deputies issue “No Trespassing” citations to offenders or arrest them? The latter, Hines added, “is not what we want.”

Harmer replied that staff will be prepared to discuss enforcement during the June public hearing.

Following the meeting, Hines emailed Sheriff Tom Knight, county email records show. Hines wrote, “Mr. Harmer and our staff will be in touch with you about implementation of the park hours rules and enforcement, etc.”

A sense of urgency

Wayne Applebee. File photo

During the May 9 discussion, Hines also noted that Harmer just that morning had forwarded to the commissioners an email from Wayne Applebee, director of homelessness services in the county. It was a follow-up to the board’s April 25 acceptance of a consultant’s report with recommendations on how best to resolve the community’s homelessness issues. Susan Pourciau, director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition, had prepared her findings under contract with the City of Sarasota, which also accepted her recommendations last month.

Among the items in his update, Applebee wrote that staff is developing funding options for consideration of county administrative staff and the commission in the effort to reserve 30 extra emergency shelter beds at The Salvation Army in Sarasota. That was one of Pourciau’s top recommendations; the City of Sarasota already pays for 20 beds at the 10th Street facility.

Hines voiced concern that Applebee had noted “earliest opportunity” as the time frame for securing those additional beds. If it is going to take more than 30 to 60 days to finalize the details, Hines continued, the commission needs to know why.

He also questioned again whether 30 more beds will be sufficient, even though Pourciau assured him on April 25 that she felt they would be.

Hines said he expected the additional shelter space probably will be needed just for homeless individuals Sarasota Police Department officers encounter in downtown Sarasota, leaving individuals who need help in Nokomis or North Port, for example, with no place to go to get off the streets.

Another item on Applebee’s list related to staff’s work with the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness to create a coordinated entry system that all service providers will use in assisting the homeless — yet another component of Pourciau’s proposal.

“Wayne’s report’s good, and it helps,” Hines said. However, Applebee indicated staff would need 12 months to implement all of Pourciau’s recommendations, he added. “That’s a long time.”

A graphic on the website of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness underscores its mission. Image from the website

If the Suncoast Partnership to End Homeless cannot handle all of the leadership responsibilities Pourciau indicated for it, Hines told Harmer, “don’t wait two to three months to tell us, ‘Hey, we’ve got a problem.’”

Leadership is critical to implementing Pourciau’s plan, he added. “Private nonprofits have been doing a good job,” Hines said, “but we’re the elected officials that represent all of Sarasota County.”

The ‘life-sustaining laws’

Then Hines pivoted to the plan to unify in one ordinance what staff and the board refer to as the county’s “life-sustaining laws.”

As long as the question of whether the county has enough emergency shelter beds has remained unresolved, the Office of the County has advised against enforcement of certain measures. The caution relates to the Pottinger Agreement, which refers to a federal district court ruling that said law enforcement officers of the City of Miami could not arrest homeless individuals for life-sustaining conduct — such as sleeping in a park after hours — when no emergency shelter was available as an alternative.

Applebee’s May 9 memo noted that county staff was working on a draft of the new ordinance and planned to provide it to the Office of the County Attorney on May 11.

County Attorney DeMarsh explained to the board that in 2014, the Office of the County Attorney focused on revising the laws based on recommendations made by Robert Marbut, a nationally known consultant on homelessness whom the City and County of Sarasota hired in 2013. The new goal is to incorporate findings of fact relevant to Pourciau’s recent recommendations, DeMarsh said.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

Applebee’s May 9 email also pointed out that staff is working on updating its list of representatives of the entities that participated in crafting the 2014 ordinances. Along with the municipalities, the participants were from the State Attorney’s Office, the Office of the Public Defender and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The last time around with these ordinances,” DeMarsh explained, “we seemed to get stuck in a loop,” with continuing questions about which municipal administrators and elected officials had been advised of the draft. “I don’t want to repeat that. … It’s not enough to have just lawyers working on ordinances.”

The goal is to make certain that one standard can be applied countywide, from city to city, County Administrator Harmer explained. Referring to the work of the committee members and the review by all the municipalities, Harmer said, “I think it can be expedited …”

“That’s what I’m looking for,” Hines replied, adding that he wanted an update on the timeline after Harmer had an opportunity to consult with staff.

A short history lesson

Hines raised all of his concerns during the Commission Reports segment of the board’s regular meeting this week in Venice. He stressed the need for action — not more delay with just periodic staff updates.

Hines pointed out that before Harmer became county administrator in 2013, commissions often adopted initiatives and then perhaps heard nothing about them for six months or a year. Harmer has done a good job of divvying up oversight of the board’s priorities to his assistant administrators, Hines added. “We’re basically holding them to the fire to keep [the initiatives] on pace …”