In four years, homeless population down 52% in city of Sarasota, annual survey shows

Number of homeless individuals countywide showing a drop of almost 40% since 2016

Homeless individuals gather in Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota in April 2016. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota via email from a resident

The total population of homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota dropped 52.1% from 2016 to 2019, the nonprofit Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness has reported.

In Sarasota County — including the city of Sarasota — the decrease from 2016 to 2019 was 38.8%, Edward DeMarco, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership, reported in a news release with data from the federally mandated Point in Time survey conducted in January.

The survey seeks to ascertain the number of homeless individuals in both Sarasota and Manatee counties. It was taken on the night of Jan. 28, DeMarco noted in the press release. More than 40 volunteers assisted with that initiative, he added.

The survey, DeMarco continued, “was the most comprehensive ever with more organizations assisting in the count and more shelters reporting on the number of homeless persons.”

Altogether, the survey found 1,135 homeless persons in the two counties, which marked a year-over-year decrease of 4.8%. The number of chronically homes individuals was 246, the report said, which was down only 1.6% year-over-year but a drop of 20.9% from 2016 to 2019.

The total count of homeless youth in the two counties was 83, which was a 27.8% drop from 2018 and a 31.4% decrease from 2016 to 2019.

This chart shows the data from the 2019 Point In Time survey in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Image courtesy Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness

“On behalf of the City of Sarasota I would like to thank you and the entire Suncoast Partnership network, and especially Jon Thaxton and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, for the exemplary effort and more importantly, the dramatic improvement in responding to the challenge of chronic homelessness,” Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin wrote DeMarco in an April 26 email after receiving the data.

Thaxton, a former county commissioner, has focused much of his work at the foundation on efforts to help the homeless throughout Sarasota County.

Both the City and County commissions have taken a number of steps over the past several years to help homeless persons gain the assistance they need to stop living on the streets. Among those efforts has been providing more beds at the Salvation Army in Sarasota. Case managers work with individuals to enable them to transition into housing from their stays at the Salvation Army.

The Sarasota City Commission also has kept a focus on Rapid Re-Housing initiatives for the homeless.

The only statistic that rose from 2018 to 2019 in the latest Point in Time report regarded the number of homeless veterans. The survey found 1.9% more of those individuals in Sarasota and Manatee counties this year, compared to the figure for 2018. However, the total for 2019 — 110 — was down 31.7% from 2016 to 2019, the report said.

For both Sarasota and Manatee counties, the number of sheltered homeless individuals — those in emergency and transient housing — was down 0.7% from 2018 to 2019, but the figure declined 9% from 2016 to 2019, the report shows.

The number of unsheltered people in the two counties fell 11.5% year-over-year, and it was down 40% from 2016 to 2019, the report said.

This is a sample question on a Point in Time survey, provided by the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development. Image from the HUD website

“As rents increase at a significantly greater rate than income,” DeMarco said in the press release, “the lack of affordable workforce housing has played a big part in the number of people who are homeless and seeking housing.”

He added, “While there were 559 new coordinated entry intakes of homeless persons in 2018, there is still a reduction in the overall count of those who were homeless on the night of the survey. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the community’s homeless crisis response and the Oneby1 Coordinated Entry System.”

DeMarco was referring to the software system fully implemented in 2017 that tracks information about every homeless person who receives help in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The establishment of that system was one of numerous recommendations in a report the City of Sarasota commissioned from the Florida Housing Coalition, which consultant Susan Pourciau presented to the City and County commissions in April 2017. Both boards accepted her recommendations.

During 2018, the Suncoast Partnership release explained, the Continuum of Care Leadership Council — whose establishment Pourciau also called for — “made a commitment to focus housing assistance for those who have been homeless the longest with a greater acuity of need. The Oneby1 Coordinated Entry System, through the efforts and commitment of the Continuum of Care partners, assisted 256 long term and high need homeless persons find permanent housing.”

The Suncoast Partnership serves as the Continuum of Care (CoC) in Sarasota and Manatee counties. In that capacity, it oversees all the efforts of area organizations that provide assistance to the homeless. The CoC webpage on the Suncoast Partnership website explains that the “CoC meets regularly to share promising practices, solve problems and introduce new ideas.”

Policy and costs

Kevin Stiff (left), homelessness response coordinator for the City of Sarasota, and Ed DeMarco appear before the City Commission on April 1. File photo

“Although we have more work to do in terms of re-creating the strained public health and housing infrastructure necessary to deal with this problem humanely, on an ongoing basis, the experience that we are earning should help us begin to move beyond crisis management, toward an ongoing coordinated and systematic approach,” City Manager Barwin wrote DeMarco in the April 26 email.

“With our proven success,” Barwin continued, “I am increasingly optimistic that policy makers will now have the evidence and confidence that solving the lion’s share of this problem is doable, when the hole in our public health system is funded appropriately. Ironically,” he added, “funding the appropriate response to complete our work will eventually save taxpayers versus the hidden but costly emergency medical/criminal justice system revolving door so many who have been living on the streets have spun through over the past many years.”

In advance of an April 1 presentation to the City Commission, Kevin Stiff, the city’s homelessness response coordinator, provided materials to the board members showing that the Florida “Council on Homelessness puts the cost of each chronically homeless person at $31,065 [a year for a community].”

An August 2015 report on the relative cost of homelessness in the Suncoast region of Florida estimated the expenses at $30,000 a year, the document said.