HOT teams leader assures City Commission that request for 10 more beds for the homeless is not a ‘backdoor’ means to creating a shelter

Board approves $127,750 for expanded contract with The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army facility is on 10th Street in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps
The Salvation Army facility is on 10th Street in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

Sarasota City Commissioner Susan Chapman had sought a number of details on Monday, April 18, regarding a Sarasota Police Department request for $127,750 to reserve 10 more beds for the chronically homeless at The Salvation Army before she finally hit the point Mayor Willie Shaw acknowledged was his greatest concern.

“Are we going to get through the back door what we started out with,” Chapman asked, referring to a homelessness consultant’s proposal in November 2013 that a come-as-you-are shelter be established in the city limits.

“That’s the point!” Shaw interjected. “Thank you,” he told Chapman.

The question was directed at Capt. Kevin Stiff, who heads up the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT).

“It’s not a de facto come-as-you-are shelter,” Stiff replied. “Nowhere close to one.”

“That’s what I needed to get in the record,” Shaw told him.

Chapman had asked that the funding request be removed from the commission’s second Consent Agenda of routine business items on April 18. Before the board finally voted 4-1 to authorize the expense — with Shaw in the minority — Stiff explained why the department was seeking the money.

Leslie Loveless, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens to Capt. Kevin Stiff in February. File photo
Leslie Loveless, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens to Capt. Kevin Stiff in February. File photo

He pointed out that the 10 beds The Salvation Army reserves for homeless individuals under a contract with the City Commission have stayed 80 to 90 percent filled. “We make sure we leave beds open at night,” Stiff added, so patrol officers on the midnight shift have some place to which they can direct people who need help or those who are violating the city’s outdoor lodging ordinance.

The 10 extra beds, he continued, would be used for chronically homeless individuals who often have to be taken to the hospital or some other community treatment facility under the guidelines of the Baker Act or the Marchman Act, along with those who have been proven most likely to commit criminal violations. “These individuals are the most difficult to house” and to help obtain the services they need, he pointed out. “These are the individuals you see every day and have a problem with.”

Because of their circumstances and the fact that they will be taking medication on their own, Stiff continued, they need to be isolated from other homeless individuals.

The money will allow The Salvation Army to hire another caseworker to assist these people, he said.

Sgt. Richie Schwieterman worked for 15 years with one person on the street who had mental health issues, Stiff noted, before Schwieterman finally was able to convince the person to go to The Salvation Army and get assistance. The homeless individual made that decision just within the past six months, Stiff added, after Schwieterman joined the HOT teams.

“This group requires our special attention,” Stiff stressed of the individuals who would be using the extra 10 beds.

Since the City Commission authorized the contract for the first 10 beds about eight months ago, Stiff continued, “we have made a lot of strides in breaking up small groups [of homeless people].” The dynamics of those groups, he explained, had tended to make it more difficult for individuals within them to accept assistance from HOT team members.

Stiff also stressed that the beds would not be used for “diversion after arrest.” The process will get a person off the street and accepting help from a caseworker, which “is the first step toward housing.”

Parsing the proposal

City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
City Commissioner Susan Chapman and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

“One of the concerns I have,” Chapman began, “is the ‘ooch factor.’ … I’m wondering if we’re getting diverted from our ultimate goal of permanent supportive housing.”

She added that the commission was in favor of “a small ‘navigation center’” as a means of providing the appropriate assistance to homeless individuals, but Stiff’s proposal seemed just to create a larger center.

Stiff told her he did not disagree with the City Commission’s Housing First approach to the homelessness problems in the community. However, he continued, “there still needs to be a process to get individuals identified to get into Housing First.”

Over the past three years, Stiff explained, about 125 beds have been set aside for emergency shelter in Manatee and Sarasota counties — along with other housing options. The beds remain at about 80-percent capacity, he emphasized.

In response to a question from Chapman about whether the caseworkers hired by The Salvation Army are certified and authorized to provide mental health assistance, Stiff said, “We’re not going to be taking people in there that are crazy.” The individuals would be self-medicating, he added. “I’m not talking about a committal facility.”

He also said he did not have any information about the training Salvation Army caseworkers undergo.

City Manager Tom Barwin noted that the process Stiff described links shelter to housing. Barwin reminded the commissioners that when the board approved the Housing First approach in April 2015, that plan called for up to 25 beds set aside as a navigation/triage facility.

Shaw asked whether the individuals the HOT teams would focus on for the 10 extra beds might be involved in other programs, therefore leading to overlap.

“Could there be crossover? Yes,” Stiff replied. “This is a difficult group.”

Nonetheless, Stiff added, the individuals the HOT teams would place in the beds would be seeking voluntary assistance with mental health issues.

City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law
City Commissioner Liz Alpert. Image from Liz Alpert Law

“I don’t want to be the … ‘Debbie Downer,’” Shaw said, emphasizing his support for the HOT teams’ work. However, he continued, he was concerned that with only 220 beds at The Salvation Army, duplication of efforts might lead to insufficient room being available for other homeless people.

“I don’t get into Salvation Army operations,” Stiff replied. The Sarasota Police Department’s personnel’s concern is trying to educate and engage individuals, letting them know about the available help and making it clear that if they choose to violate city ordinances instead of accepting assistance, they are subject to arrest.

Commissioner Liz Alpert told her colleagues, “It seems to me that [the individuals for whom the new beds would be reserved] are the people on the streets we are dealing with all the time. [The HOT team members] know what they need in order to continue to be effective, and I think we should support that, so we can continue to make further inroads.” Alpert added, “I don’t think 20 beds is a massive issue.”

“I completely support what you’re doing,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell told Stiff. “We need this. … We just can’t go to Housing First immediately.”

Without further discussion, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie made the motion to approve the funding request. Atwell seconded it, and it then passed 4-1.