Emergency shelter beds request for South County wins full County Commission approval

Board directs county administrator to work on securing a location with room for growth, to facilitate work of Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Team

HOT Case Manager Nancy Williams speaks with a man in a camp in a video produced by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

In making the case for emergency shelter beds in South County, William Spitler, coordinator of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s services for the homeless, offered an anecdote to the County Commission on March 10.

Earlier that day, Spitler said, the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) of the Sheriff’s Office found a woman who had been living in the bathroom for the girls’ softball team at Wellfield Park, a county facility in the city of Venice. The woman had been there three or four days, he continued. At night, she would sleep in a hammock she put up in the dugout for the home team on the south baseball field.

“She refused services,” Spitler told the board, because she did not want to go to the Salvation Army in Sarasota, where the county contracts for emergency shelter beds.

“It would have been nice to have taken her to a shelter [in South County],” Spitler added.

The HOT members moved her out of the park, he said, and he notified the Venice Police Department. “She’s a work in progress.”

After an approximately hour-long discussion — and presentation of more anecdotes and data on March 10 — Commissioner Charles Hines made a motion, directing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis “to move immediately to look for and secure a location” for a minimum number of HOT beds in South County and to work on how to pay for the beds and related services for the individuals who will be using them.

Commissioner Nancy Detert seconded Hines’ motion, which passed unanimously.

This graphic shows the types of services provided to homeless individuals in South County in 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Spitler and Wayne Applebee, senior manager of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, had told the board that they felt it was a better idea to start with a small number and then increase it based on how well the emergency shelter situation worked in South County. However, after commissioners questioned whether eight beds would prove sufficient, Hines left a number out of his motion.

Spitler had proposed four beds for women and four for men. Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who serves as senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, “says it best,” Spitler added: “‘Start out small.’ And if we need to scale up, we scale up.”

“We believe in establishing a ‘proof of concept’ before we go big,” Thaxton himself told the board. “It’s much less expensive to fail small.”

Applebee explained that another reason he, Thaxton and Spitler had settled on eight beds was because of data from the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness showing that 17% of county residents who received help in 2019 through providers of services to the homeless were in South County. Additionally, 18% of the transports of the Sarasota County Fire Department and its EMS units involving homeless people in 2019 were in South County, Applebee said.

The Continuum of Care (CoC) which the Suncoast Partnership oversees, maintains a software system referred to as a “coordinated entry system.” That system tracks each client who receives help, Applebee noted. (The CoC is a collaboration of service providers in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Its webpage explains, “The CoC meets regularly to share promising practices, solve problems and introduce new ideas.”)

A slide shows that most of the recommendations of this 2017 report of the Florida Housing Coalition have been implemented. The red bar refers to adult shelter beds in South County, which are not yet available. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A 2017 report commissioned by the City and County of Sarasota on solutions to homelessness — written by the director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition — recommended that the county maintain 50 emergency shelter beds at the Salvation Army in Sarasota, Applebee added. Thus, 17% of 50 equated to 8.5 beds for South County.

(For the 2019 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2019, the County Commission lowered the number of Salvation Army beds it was funding from 30 to 15, based on actual demand, as noted in a county staff memo.)

In making his March 10 motion, Hines pointed out, “I’d like to have a little room for growth.” Nonetheless, he said he did not foresee the need at any time for 100 beds in South County, because the emergency shelter would not entail any long-term care.

Hines further noted the potential for neighbors of the facility to express worries. He advocated for creating “that trust factor,” which would help ensure the shelter’s success.

Finally, although Spitler also had asked for the beds to be at a location in the unincorporated part of the county, Hines emphasized that many of the individuals the beds would serve are in the cities of North Port and Venice.

Hines referred to other remarks Thaxton had made that day. Thaxton explained that the North Port City Commission had made clear its willingness to work with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and other nonprofit organizations to add a case manager to North Port’s HOT team, which has comprised just two city police officers. (A case manager works with clients to help them get the assistance agencies can provide.)

Commissioner Charles Hines addresses a speaker on March 10. News Leader image

“They need to partner with us,” Hines said of the elected leaders in Venice and North Port. “I don’t want to see us wait two years to get something going. This is absolutely needed. This is the last piece of the puzzle to help everybody out.”

In that latter comment, Hines was referencing remarks Applebee had made at the outset of the presentation. Making emergency shelter beds available in South County was the only recommendation still not implemented out of those contained in the 2017 report on solutions to homelessness.

More data and observations to underscore the issues

During his remarks on March 10, Thaxton noted that from 2016 to 2019, the county achieved “a 38% reduction in [its] overall homeless rate. I would like to see those numbers continue.”

“The South County homeless population,” he added, “looks completely different from North County. They’re younger; they’re healthier; they are more mobile.” As a result, Thaxton said, “The solution to this problem is not moving the people from south to north.”

Just as he and Commissioner Hines chose to stay in South County because they grew up there and attended school there, Thaxton stressed, homeless individuals in South County also want to remain there, instead of having to seek help in North County. “This is their home.” They go to worship services in South County, he continued. “They have friends here; they have a network here. Ripping them apart from that network,” Thaxton emphasized, would be counterproductive.

Applebee showed the board members other data collected by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. For example, providers operating through the Continuum of Care served 647 adults and children in South County in 2019.

This pie chart provides data about the number of homeless clients served in South County and North County in 2019. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, Applebee noted, 2,008 unique services were provided in South County. “We would like to see more and more individuals use what we call ‘transformational services,’” Applebee added, referring to assistance to the homeless to help them find permanent housing and achieve self-sufficiency in their lives.

As he addressed the commissioners, Spitler of the Sheriff’s Office pointed out that for the past three months — December 2019, January and February — the HOT members identified 157 newly homeless individuals in the county; 40, or about 25% of them, were living in South County, he added.

(Applebee also had noted that, for purposes of the discussion, the line of demarcation for South County was Blackburn Point Road.)

As Commissioner Detert reviewed a data sheet Spitler had provided the board, showing where the HOT members had contacted homeless individuals, she noted an address on Dancing River Drive. “I believe that is a guard-gated community” in the Stoneybrook community of Venice, she told Spitler. She indicated that the address’ inclusion on the list could have been a mistake.

Spitler responded that Sheriff’s Office staff alerts the HOT when someone is being evicted from a home, so the team can check into the situation and, if necessary, try to prevent the person’s entering homelessness. Other addresses on the sheet, he added, could reflect incidents in which children were “being kicked out” of homes.

Moreover, Spitler pointed out, “Drug addiction and homelessness and poverty are no longer just on the outside of our gated communities.”

William Spitler addresses the commission on March 10. News Leader image

Spitler then figuratively built the foundation for Thaxton’s later remarks on South County homeless individuals not wanting to go to Sarasota for help. “It’s a tough sell,” Spitler emphasized of efforts to convince someone to let HOT members take the person to the Salvation Army facility.

Then Spitler noted South County situation underscoring the need for help south of Blackburn Point Road.

A person driving into the parking lots of the Target on South Tamiami Trail and the Walmart in Osprey at night, he pointed out, would see those areas are “flooded with people who are living in their cars.” Those individuals generally have daytime jobs in South County. “They’re just broke. … We need a place where [they] can come after work” and get a shower and a good meal, he said. Within 30 days, they likely would be able “to get back on their feet.”

“How prevalent is that?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked about people living in vehicles.

“It’s all over the county,” Spitler replied. “It’s more prevalent south than north.”

Some people take vehicle ownership for granted, Spitler continued, thinking of a car as not being expensive. Yet, he stressed, “If you have no money, well, a car’s a huge expense, [and] you’ve got to have a car to get a good job.”

This is a section of the Walmart parking lot in Osprey during business hours. Image from Google Maps

However, Spitler said, a monthly car payment eats into the income of someone who has little wherewithal. That is another reason people find themselves living in cars instead of houses or apartments, he indicated.

“Are they open to help?” Ziegler asked.

“They just need a place to go in South County [for shelter] and be able to not spend $50 more a week driving from Sarasota down here,” Spitler added, referring to the services at the Salvation Army operation on 10th Street in Sarasota.

The HOT members “need a place that’s like [the Salvation Army],” Spitler continued, in regard to 24-hour supervision and security, a place “with the benefits of being a true shelter.”