County commissioners endorse recommendations in a consultant’s report prepared under contract to the City of Sarasota
Reserving 30 more emergency shelter beds for the homeless at The Salvation Army in Sarasota is dependent upon the means to pay for them, Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s director of homelessness services told The Sarasota News Leader this week. At the County Commission’s direction on April 25, the effort to pull together those financial resources will be a primary focus of Applebee and his staff in the coming weeks.
Making a total of 50 beds available at any given time at The Salvation Army — including the 20 for which the City of Sarasota already has a contract — is one key recommendation for resolving the continuing issues of homelessness in the community, Applebee pointed out to the county board.
Susan Pourciau, the director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition, offered that recommendation after undertaking an analysis of the problems in Sarasota County at the behest of the City Commission. During the April 25 County Commission meeting, Applebee introduced her to the board.
Pourciau told the commissioners that if all her suggestions are implemented, “You’ll see a noticeable decline” in homelessness.
The communities in Florida that have taken steps such as those she has outlined “have seen drastic declines in homelessness in downtown areas, so it will happen [here],” Pourciau added. Still, she cautioned, it will take some time.
The commission, by consensus, accepted the findings of her report and asked County Administrator Tom Harmer to direct Applebee and his staff to work with community partners to implement the recommendations.
The extra beds at The Salvation Army would enable law enforcement officers “to direct more folks to [that facility] … with no strings attached,” Pourciau explained. A person would have a bed, a place to store his or her belongings and access to food and a shower. Then, service providers could work with the individual on the next steps necessary to get the person off the streets, she pointed out. “The more important part is engagement and moving people out of homelessness.”
“For three years, this has been the piece that has been missing,” Commissioner Charles Hines said of the call for more shelter beds, referring to city and county efforts since 2013 to achieve significant results in ending homelessness in the county.
Noting that Capt. Kevin Stiff, leader of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Teams, was in the audience, Hines added that law enforcement officers have been working not to criminalize the homeless in Sarasota County. The only option officers have at this time is to offer assistance to someone who is violating a city or county ordinance as a result of being homeless, Hines added. If the individual refuses to accept that offer, the police officer or deputy has no recourse, Hines pointed out.
During recent board meetings, Hines and Commissioner Alan Maio both have voiced frustration over vagrancy in county parks. Nokomis residents recently have complained at length about homeless people causing problems in their community, Maio has told his colleagues.
“It’s not the bulk of [the homeless] folks,” Hines stressed, referring to those who refuse to accept help, “but they’re the most difficult to deal with and affect the quality of life of the other people around us.”
Compassion and the laws
During the April 25 meeting, Hines again discussed 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.
If 30 more beds at The Salvation Army’s 10th Street facility in Sarasota are not sufficient, Hines told Pourciau, “we need to know what is [the right number]. … We don’t want to get sued by anybody for criminalizing [homelessness].” Then he asked her whether 30 extra beds will suffice.
The total of 50 would be sufficient, Pourciau said, though she was quick to add, “I will not offer a legal opinion, as I am not a licensed attorney.” Nonetheless, she pointed out, “This report is based on decades of national [and] international data and research on the topic of homelessness.”
The 50 emergency beds would be combined with 80 identified for Rapid ReHousing and another 20 scattered around the community — with 40 more of the latter to be provided ideally in one project — for Permanent Supportive Housing, Applebee explained. Altogether, those units would be able to accommodate the approximately 130 individuals identified as literally homeless in the 2017 Point-in-Time survey conducted under the aegis of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, Pourciau said. Although close to 900 people were identified as homeless in Sarasota County during the Jan. 23 event, she added, about 750 of them already were in transitional housing.
(Rapid ReHousing, Applebee explained, is a concept in which a landlord provides dwelling units for homeless people whom service providers visit regularly while giving them the specific assistance they need. An entity that provides services acts as the liaison between the people in the housing units and the landlord, he noted. Permanent Supportive Housing refers to dwelling units for homeless individuals with disabilities, which will necessitate ongoing support, he added.)
“I also am presuming … that when our ordinances are brought up to speed, and our parks are secured, that we won’t have the overnight drunken behavior in the park system and people laying out on picnic tables with bag and baggage and doing all sorts of things on our picnic tables that our kids are going to eat on the next morning,” Maio said.
The County Commission on April 25 also directed County Administrator Harmer to have Applebee and other staff members continue their efforts to help the homeless through the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Housing Initiative Facilitating Transient Services (SHIFTS) program.
Furthermore, Applebee said, staff will work with the Continuum of Care — which is overseen by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness — in the effort to create a leadership group in the community that Pourciau called for to oversee the implementation of her recommendations.
Applebee explained on April 25 that, along with the leadership group, Pourciau has recommended the creation of a coordinated entry system: Local governments, philanthropists and community service providers would utilize one set of procedures to assess the needs of homeless single adults and offer them appropriate help.
Additionally, Pourciau has encouraged service providers to divert the homeless from emergency shelter, Applebee pointed out. As indicated by research at the national level, he continued, about 30% of the people who seek emergency shelter have sufficient resources — including friends or family members who can help them — so they can avoid having to move into a shelter. It is better for them in the long run, Pourciau indicated, if they can manage to secure short-tem housing on their own.
The shelter bed process at work
During the discussion, Hines asked for more details about how law enforcement officers would utilize the emergency shelter beds in conjunction with the threat of jail.
“It is very unlikely that all 50 beds will be full every night,” Pourciau said, “because the need for those beds will not all happen at the same time.”
When the 20 beds available now are full, Applebee told Hines, Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department communicates with his fellow officers to make them aware of that fact. During such a period, Applebee added, no individual is charged with any violation of an ordinance related to a life-sustaining action. Then, when more beds become available, Applebee continued, Stiff alerts officers, so enforcement can begin again.
Applebee pointed out that research he had undertaken had shown that over the past 12 months, 118 charges filed by Sarasota Police Department officers involved individuals sleeping out of doors when beds were available at The Salvation Army. In 17 of those cases, he said, arrests were made and the persons were taken to jail.
Another 500 people found sleeping out of doors were transported to The Salvation Army, Applebee added.
As her recommendations are implemented, Pourciau pointed out, “communication and coordination between law enforcement and the shelter provider will be key. … It’s just a matter of developing a protocol …”
After the Rapid ReHousing and Permanent Supportive Housing units have been made available, she continued, “there won’t be as many people staying at [The Salvation Army] for so long.”