More shelter beds and more housing for longer terms among the recommendations for improving how the City of Sarasota handles homelessness

City manager says the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness already is working on how it can help implement a consultant’s suggestions

Susan Pourciau’s report features this cover. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Making more immediate-need beds and longer-term housing units available — including new structures — is one recommendation the Sarasota City Commission heard this week from a consultant hired to examine the community’s homelessness issues and provide recommendations on how best to resolve them.

Other facets of the plan that should be implemented are a coordinated entry system — including assessment of individuals’ needs — a community leadership team and use of measurements to gauge the effectiveness of program elements, Susan Pourciau, the director of homeless training and technical assistance at the Florida Housing Coalition, told the City Commission on April 17.

The commission contracted with the coalition in late November 2016 for development of the report.

Among Pourciau’s specific recommendations are increasing the number of beds the city makes available for emergency shelter at The Salvation Army from 20 to 50; adding at least 80 “Rapid ReHousing” dwelling units for single, non-veteran adults within the first year of implementation of the plan; finding at least 20 housing openings around the county within the first year of the program to provide permanent supportive housing; and developing at least 40 more units for permanent supportive housing. The Continuum of Care of Sarasota and Manatee counties, she noted, should be the entity that establishes performance benchmarks and common requirements for the permanent supportive housing. Providing such residential units, she pointed out, also entails making services available to address individuals’ physical and mental health needs.

With regard to Rapid ReHousing, Pourciau explained, “I don’t mean build 80 units.” Instead, she continued, the city should help 80 households move into apartments or duplexes close to employment and transit opportunities. That facet of the plan includes financial assistance, she said.

In her report, Pourciau writes that Rapid ReHousing “is essential because it is through these programs that the logjam in homelessness is released. Rapid ReHousing is designed to increase the ‘flow’ through the system and without it people remain homeless longer, becoming less likely to become employed fully and more likely to have increased behavioral and physical health issues.”

Additionally, she told the commissioners, “Because of a lack of affordable housing … here, it will be necessary to do some building,” to create permanent supportive housing. Funding assistance is available from the Florida Housing Coalition, from the federal government and “a lot of private [entities],” she pointed out, calling the financing, “Completely doable.” Still, she advised the board, “You should start planning now.”

Don Hadsell, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development in Sarasota, listens as Susan Pourciau addresses the City Commission on April 17. News Leader photo

City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners that representatives of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness already have met with Pourciau and have committed to pursuing a restructuring of the Continuum of Care for Sarasota and Manatee counties in an effort to put Pourciau’s recommendations in place. The Partnership is the entity that submits the annual Continuum of Care application to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Continuum of Care itself comprises representatives from the programs and providers in the two counties that assist the homeless.

The Partnership also is prepared to establish a “Funders Council,” yet another facet of her proposals, Barwin said. That group will be exactly what it suggests, Pourciau explained: It will comprise leaders from community entities — including local governments, foundations and major donors — paying to support measures to help the homeless; its members will meet on a regular basis to address resource allocation, collaboration and performance metrics for the various aspects of the program.

Additionally, Barwin noted, with the Suncoast Partnership seeking a new CEO, the nonprofit is updating the description for that job and reviewing its organizational structure.

When Mayor Willie Shaw sought consensus from the commissioners on accepting Pourciau’s report, they readily gave it. They also did not hesitate to agree that Barwin should work with the Florida Housing Coalition in implementing her recommendations.

“What we’re looking at is creating a system … to help resolve [the homelessness issues in the community],” Commissioner Liz Alpert summed it up. The report, she added, “seems like a really good starting point.”

“It is our great hope that this will help bring everybody together to form a systematic approach,” Barwin said.

Delving into the findings

A homeless man sleeps in Five Points Park. File photo

Early on during the approximately 40 minutes she spoke at the end of the commission meeting, Pourciau pointed out, “Sarasota already is investing a great deal of money in the homelessness problem.” However, she said, the funds could be used better to improve the quality of life not only for those without housing but also for residents, business owners and tourists.

Because of the success of the Family Haven Alliance in helping homeless families, she continued, her focus was on adults, who comprise 85% of the homeless population in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

She pointed out that homelessness results from a wide variety of circumstances. Among them are the sudden loss of a job; car trouble that prevents someone from getting to work — and getting a paycheck; and the need to escape from domestic violence. “Most people who become homeless,” she noted, “have relatively short-term crises” that have led to their situations. Only about 15% to 20% of the homeless people in Sarasota County need more intensive services and help over a longer period, she added. “That’s what permanent supportive housing is.”

Homelessness has been studied over the past 25 years, Pourciau said. “We know now how to do things better than we used to do them.” The focus, she added, has been put on what data collection and research have shown works well.

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

First, Pourciau continued, “There needs to be a body … to provide leadership … to make sure that all the cogs are working together.” It should be affiliated with or working with the Suncoast Partnership, she added.

Then, in collaboration with that “Leadership Board,” she noted, the Funders Council should be created. Together, those two groups should build community support for the system that will address the needs in the county, she added.

The Leadership Board should establish specific processes for tracking, investigating and responding to performance measures set for the individual programs and agencies, she pointed out.

The two adult populations who should have top priority for help are homeless veterans and single adults who have been without housing for a long time and who have disabling conditions. Pourciau noted that the city already has a program that directs help to the former group.

Through use of a coordinated entry system, she continued, a common assessment tool will be used for all homeless adults. It will address questions such as “What are the barriers to hiring?” and “What are the barriers to income?” and it will ask what programs would best serve an individual.

A section of the report offers these statistics. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

She noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has mandated establishment of such a process by January 2018. “Some pieces are already in place [in the county],” she said. The Suncoast Partnership is the appropriate entity to handle the entry system, she pointed out.

Next, community leaders should consider redirecting some of the funding that has been going to prevention of homelessness to a diversion process, Pourciau said. The latter entails working with homeless individuals to find out whether they might have alternatives to shelter beds, such as moving in temporarily with friends. Keeping someone from entering the system in the first place is beneficial, she told the board. The Family Haven Alliance diverts 30% of the families that come to it seeking assistance, she pointed out.

If the community implemented the various facets of the plan as she proposed them, Pourciau told the commission, it would achieve not only a reduction in its costs but also a significant decline in street homelessness in downtown Sarasota and in the city’s parks. “Within a year, you will see a noticeable difference.” Moreover, she said, the people who are homeless “will be better served than they currently are.”