In plans to address homelessness, shelter tour for the media fuels more friction between city and county

During the outing for reporters, county officials defend sites under due diligence for a shelter, but city officials find fault with the county’s plan

Wayne Applebee answers media questions before the tour. Roger Drouin photo
Wayne Applebee (right) answers media questions before the tour. Roger Drouin photo

In September 2013, as homelessness issues consultant Robert Marbut visited with representatives of civic and nonprofit organizations, as well as elected officials, in pitching his solution for what he called a “transformational center” in Sarasota County, he stressed a “Smart Love” approach in dealing with the area’s population of chronically homeless individuals.

Marbut pointed to the model of Pinellas Safe Harbor, where the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office serves as the manager, with the support of nonprofit groups, and faith-based organizations provide all the food.

But more two years later, it appears there is no love between the Sarasota City Commission and the Sarasota County Commission, or most of their respective staffs, when it comes to the issue of addressing chronic homelessness. (See the related story in this issue.) City and county leaders cannot seem to find common ground when it comes to location, size and function of a homeless shelter in Sarasota.

At the heart of the issue is Marbut’s recommendation for a come-as-you-are, jail-diversion facility in the city’s core.

“We are capable of doing some amazing things if we all collaborate,” said City Manager Tom Barwin. “But for some reason, the county is hung up on the out-of-state consultant’s direction.”

Robert Marbut addresses the City and County Commissions in November 2013. File photo
Robert Marbut addresses the City and County commissions in November 2013. File photo

Marbut is based in Texas. His 2013 hiring was a joint decision of the City and County commissions.

Sarasota County staff members and the commissioners are standing firm on their plans for a 250-bed shelter for the homeless, potentially at one of three sites in north Sarasota, just outside the city limits. Those pieces of property might not be perfect, they acknowledge, but they seem to be the best options brought forward for the shelter so far, with city leaders remaining adamantly opposed to a facility anywhere within the city limits.

For City of Sarasota staff members and commissioners, the three sites — particularly the home of Bucko’s Furniture, across from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex — stand as a possible encumbrance to their efforts to rejuvenate the heart of one of the city’s most economically distressed communities. The city’s priority is a Housing First strategy, designed to build or retrofit housing units as long-term dwelling places for homeless people. City leaders say they doubt that a large, jail-diversion shelter will be an effective solution to chronic homelessness in the county. Some have voiced support, however, for a smaller, 50-bed triage center that could temporarily house homeless individuals and provide them services before they can be relocated into permanent housing.

On the sunny morning of Dec. 10, the county’s coordinator of homelessness services, Wayne Applebee, and Bill Spitler, director of research and planning for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, led a tour of previously discussed shelter sites as well as the three current top choices.

Applebee and Spitler spoke about how a shelter will enable them to keep homeless people off the streets and help such individuals remain out of trouble with the law.

“We are ready to move on this situation,” Applebee told the media, conveying a sense of urgency.

‘The best we can do’

Bucko's is located across Myrtle Street from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex. Image from Google Maps
Bucko’s is located across Myrtle Street from the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex (marked by the red flag), while Booker High School is about two blocks away (left). Image from Google Maps

During the tour, Applebee defended the county’s controversial selection of the three north Sarasota sites, saying the city left county leaders no other options.

“When the city takes 100 sites off the list, this is the best we can do,” Applebee said.

The county commissioners would prefer to open a shelter in the city limits, close to existing social services and farther from schools and neighborhoods, Applebee pointed out. But city leaders rejected locations in the city, he said, forcing the county to seek sites elsewhere.

On the other side of town, at Sarasota City Hall, no one had heard in advance about plans for the tour, The Sarasota News Leader found — neither the commissioners, nor the city manager, nor the city spokeswoman, nor Doug Logan, the city’s director of special initiatives for homelessness.

When they did find out, City Manager Barwin said he was baffled and frustrated.

“I myself was a bit mystified about its purpose,” Barwin said several days after the media outing, which included a question-and-answer session.

City Commissioner Susan Chapman told the News Leader that county staff’s assertion that the city had rejected 100 sites is “a myth.”

“The county refused to work with us,” Chapman said, adding that she believes talks between the boards broke down when both local government bodies were considering potential sites, but county employees were refusing to share details about any county-owned property where a shelter could be located.

The Lime Avenue site of Harvest Tabernacle Church was rejected by city leaders. Roger Drouin photo
The Lime Avenue site of Harvest Tabernacle Church was rejected by city leaders. Roger Drouin photo

Chapman added that she feels the county’s Dec. 10 tour was a desperate measure in the wake of protests from residents and community leaders in north Sarasota, who have been trying to rally support in opposition to a shelter on the Bucko’s site or one of the other two parcels near it.

“We are just going in circles,” Chapman pointed out. “Why are they trying to jam this down our throats?”

This Butler Avenue parcel is one of three on which county staff is conducting due diligence. Roger Drouin photo
This Butler Avenue parcel is one of three on which county staff is conducting due diligence. Roger Drouin photo

Chapman said that she wants to see the Housing First initiative implemented, adding that a jail-diversion program is not what Sarasota needs.

During the Dec. 10 tour, Applebee and Spitler pointed to other locations, including the Harvest Tabernacle Church property at 209 N. Lime Ave., as ideal sites for a shelter. The Lime Avenue property includes a commercial kitchen and three other buildings in good shape, they noted. Most importantly, they said, the site is close to existing nonprofit organizations that aid the homeless, as well as county social service agencies. But the city rejected that site, Applebee and Spitler said.

The former Inter-City Meats location and another commercial property, at 1101 N. Lime Ave., were two other sites “the city did not want to pursue,” Applebee pointed out.

Opposition is likely to follow any talk of a shelter location, Applebee added.

“If [the facility] is anywhere near the urban core, there will be someone who will not like it,” he said.

Nonetheless, any potential issues regarding buffers — and concerns about crime — must be, and will be, addressed after the county moves forward with a final site, he added.