County commissioners point to facets of report on February workshop to reaffirm support for community triage facility for the homeless

City of Sarasota expecting a consultant’s report on homelessness no later than mid-April, city manager says

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

In Sarasota County’s efforts to deal with homeless people suffering from mental and behavioral health problems, one key missing component is a triage center, a report issued by the University of South Florida’s Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Technical Assistance Center concludes.

Referencing the document, Commissioner Charles Hines summed up the conclusion during his board’s regular meeting on March 21: “You need a place to triage people other than the jail, other than the hospital, which are the two most expensive and inefficient ways to deal with this.”

Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s director of services for the homeless had provided a copy of the report to the County Commission.

Hines added, “I think the only debate that’s left is how big and where [a triage center should be located],” or whether it should be “virtual,” comprising an online inventory of beds through First Step of Sarasota, the Sheriff’s Housing Initiative Facilitating Transient Services (SHIFTS) program or The Salvation Army.

The triage center, Hines continued, would serve as an option for law enforcement officers dealing with an individual who needs help but for whom commitment to a mental health facility under Baker Act or Marchman Act guidelines would be inappropriate. (Those acts deal with cases involving people who are a danger to themselves and/or others.)

If it is virtual, he added, “what’s the number of beds that we need?”

Along with the triage center, the other four priorities the report says community leaders should discuss are permanent supportive housing; creation of an assertive community treatment team; supported employment; and the implementation of memoranda of understanding among stakeholders regarding information sharing, training, a crisis intervention team and resource allocations.

In a March 15 email to County Administrator Tom Harmer, Applebee pointed out that “A Sequential Intercept Mapping (SIM) workshop held in Sarasota County [on Feb. 2 and 3] provided a strategic plan for … individuals with substance abuse and/or mental health disorders (SAMH) involved in the criminal justice system in [the county]. The SIM workshop was not intended [his emphasis] to develop a plan for all adults in need of … behavioral healthcare or who are homeless in Sarasota County.” However, he added, “the SIM can be used as an integrated tool with other community plans, such as behavioral healthcare, criminal justice, or plans to end homelessness.”

Wayne Applebee addresses the board on Feb. 7. File photo

The SIM workshop participants, Applebee noted, were “54 individuals representing cross-systems stakeholders including [substance abuse and/or mental health disorders] SAMH treatment providers, human services, corrections, advocates, family members, consumers, law enforcement, county courts, and the judiciary.”

Hines, who was among them, brought up the report during the County Commission’s March 21 session in response to comments Commissioner Alan Maio had made regarding homeless people staying in county parks after hours.

Once a triage center has been established, Hines told his colleagues, the county will be in a position to enforce ordinances against camping in parks overnight, for example, and public drunkenness without fear of running afoul of what is known as the Pottinger Agreement. The latter resulted from litigation the Miami Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida brought against the City of Miami in 1988 over the city’s and its police department’s treatment of homeless people. A federal district court judge ruled that such individuals cannot be arrested for committing life-sustaining conduct — such as sleeping in a park after hours — if no shelter is available for them.

Image courtesy Sarasota County

The February SIM workshop was held as a facet of the state grant Sarasota County Judge Erika Quartermaine won late last year to establish a Comprehensive Treatment Court. That court service is designed to stop what she and behavioral health service providers, other criminal justice representatives and law enforcement personnel have characterized as a “revolving-door” system, with the same people jailed time and again for mental health issues. Quartermaine explained to the City and County commissions last year that jails across the United States had been reporting increasing numbers of mentally ill offenders who were being incarcerated because of low-level offenses. She modeled the CTC in Sarasota County on a Miami-Dade County initiative that, she said, had seen the recidivism rate for arrestees with serious mental illness — such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia — drop from 76% to 20%. (See the related story in this issue.)

The SIM report points out that Quartermaine “requested the SIM workshop as a top priority in the implementation of a new three-year Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant awarded by the Florida Department of Children and Families …” One of the workshop’s goals, the report notes, was to identify “resources, gaps in services, and opportunities within the existing systems of behavioral healthcare, law enforcement, and the judiciary.”

The pressing need

Hines pointed out on March 21 that since the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC) began on March 1, he understood eight or nine people already had received assistance. “But the capacity of the program, I think, is 25 people,” he said, “so it’s going to be full very quick. Then what do we do?”

Hines continued, “It’s not right to leave these people on the street. It’s unsafe for them. They’re not getting the treatment that they need. And we, as elected leaders, need to make a decision and move forward.”

Hines then asked County Administrator Tom Harmer for an update on when the City of Sarasota will receive a report on homelessness issues it has commissioned from a consultant.

Harmer replied that he understood it is expected at the end of this month.

City Manager Tom Barwin (left) confers with Mayor Willie Shaw during the 2017 Convocation of Governments in January. Rachel Hackney photo

On March 6, City Manager Tom Barwin told the city commissioners that he had spoken with the consultant recently, and she hoped to have the report completed “later this month; certainly, no later, hopefully, than mid-April. … I think it’ll be a good piece of work [that regional leaders can support].”

During the County Commission discussion of the SIM workshop in early February, Harmer advised the board members to await the results of that city report before providing direction to county staff on the next steps for dealing with the issues of homelessness.

“A lot’s going to happen in the next few weeks that I think will put us in a place … to make a decision,” Hines said on March 21.

“I think at the end of the day, we have to be OK with perhaps doing something, even if it’s not perfect … and being prepared to adjust [the action later, as needed],” Chair Paul Caragiulo added. “No one really seems to want to identify [a triage center] as a necessary component.”

Commissioner Maio added that he heard from community residents that they objected to the size of a proposed shelter when the City and County commissions last held a joint meeting on the issue, in 2015. Then, the County Commission was focused on a facility for several hundred people, modeled after a homeless shelter in Pinellas County.

“But when we get to the point … and Commissioner Hines makes this type of motion for one of these triage centers or a virtual one … you can be assured of my second on that,” Maio added.

“What we can better do is manage the homelessness issue,” Hines told his colleagues. “We’re not going to solve homelessness; we cannot change human nature.”

“Please read that report,” Hines urged the other commissioners.