New regulations related to homelessness scheduled for County Commission consideration on Aug. 29

‘Life-sustaining’ ordinance designed to deal with individuals committing crimes after refusing social service assistance

Editor’s note: The top photo was taken by former City Editor Stan Zimmerman in front of the Selby Public Library in downtown Sarasota, not City Hall.

A homeless man sleeps on a bench outside Selby Public Library in downtown Sarasota. File photo

During their regular meeting on Aug. 29, the Sarasota County commissioners will be asked to take their first formal action on a proposed new ordinance related to homelessness in the community.

“Staff is in the process of finalizing the draft ordinance [on life-sustaining activities] for an authorization to advertise [it],” county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester responded to a Sarasota News Leader inquiry this week. “If the board approves the authorization, then we will likely have a public workshop, though that date is tentative at the moment,” Winchester added.

The Aug. 29 county board meeting will be held at the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

As long as the question of whether the county had enough emergency shelter beds remained unresolved, the Office of the County advised against enforcement of certain laws, staff has explained to the County Commission. That caution relates to the Pottinger Agreement, which refers to a federal district court ruling that said law enforcement officers of the City of Miami could not arrest homeless individuals for life-sustaining conduct — such as sleeping in a park after hours — when no emergency shelter was available as an alternative.

In light of the plan for advertising the revised ordinance prior to a public hearing on it, Commissioner Charles Hines this week emailed Venice Mayor John Holic to suggest “that it may be a good time for your Administrator to request a presentation to your entire Commission of where things stand [with the draft].”

Hines added in his Aug. 14 email, “Your staff participates in the meetings and are aware of what’s going on, but Wayne Applebee has the whole picture and can present it very well. That way we can all be on the same page over the next few months as we move forward with addressing this very pressing social issue.”

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Applebee is the county’s director of services to the homeless.

Hines’ correspondence followed the board’s receipt of an Aug. 10 email from Rich Collins, the county’s director of emergency services. Collins wrote that the City of Sarasota “requested our assistance in preparing graphs showing homeless responses since the inception of the homeless report.”

Collins was referring to the data his staff compiles each month, showing how many EMS calls involved homeless people and where the calls originated. As the News Leader reported in its Aug. 11 edition, about 74% of those calls for EMS assistance thus far this year have come from homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota.

Collins noted in his email that the graphs he was sending the commissioners covered the four-year period from June 2013 through June of this year.

A policy three years in the making

During the commissioners’ last extensive discussion of homelessness issues — in May — Hines and Commissioner Alan Maio both talked of their desire to get the new life-sustaining ordinance in place as soon as possible.

With the Sarasota City Commission and the County Commission in April having accepted a new report on strategies to resolve homelessness issues in the community, Hines and Maio were focused on revised laws that could be imposed on individuals who refused to accept agencies’ assistance to help them. Hines pointed out that the World Rowing Championships at the end of September are expected to bring tens of thousands of foreign visitors to the county for the first time. “They’re going to go to downtown Sarasota. I sure don’t want to see a report from France or England on how poorly we are managing the … panhandlers … because we failed to implement [in a timely fashion] a policy that we’ve been talking about for three years.”

Among its recommendations, the April report on aiding the homeless in the community called for the City and County commissions to keep more beds reserved at The Salvation Army for immediate care and for making more dwelling units available, so individuals could transition into housing after receiving social service assistance.

During the May 9 County Commission discussion, County Administrator Tom Harmer and County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh pointed out that one critical factor in implementing a new life-sustaining ordinance for the county would be “buy-in” from the municipalities.

Wayne Applebee addresses the board on Feb. 7. File photo

On May 17, Harmer emailed the commissioners a copy of the draft ordinance at that time, noting that Applebee had worked with the Office of the County Attorney on the document. “A copy has been distributed to the City Managers and a meeting is being scheduled to review with the cities, sheriff, etc. I have asked Wayne to provide regular updates on the process.”

Replying to Harmer, Hines asked whether representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union also had received a copy of the draft. Harmer assured Hines that the nonprofit was on the list of stakeholders Applebee was contacting for their comments.

The mid-May version

The May 17 draft of the ordinance Harmer emailed to the county commissioners pointed out that the regulations were designed “to discourage unlawful activity, including on private and public property,” with the goal of maintaining “a safe and orderly environment …”

The document also noted that the board “seeks to protect persons from the threat of aggressive panhandling.”

It refers to the report that the consultant with the Florida Housing Coalition — working under contract with the City of Sarasota — released in April, with the recommendations on effective responses to the community’s homelessness issues. That report “recommends that an effective homeless crisis response system serves to promote engagement into holistic programs, and not ‘criminalize’ the condition of homelessness,” the May draft said.

The News Leader was unable to verify before its deadline this week whether the draft had been revised since May.

A graph compares numbers of EMS calls to assist the homeless over the past four years. EMS crews operate under the aegis of the Sarasota County Fire Department (SCFD). Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Services

Among the findings of fact in the May document were the following:

  • Data collected by the Sarasota County Health and Human Services Department for calendar year 2016 found that “individuals without homes on average represent 15% of the Sarasota County Jail’s population, 53% of admissions to the Addiction Receiving Facility, 46% of admissions to the Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Unit and 3.2% of all Sarasota County 911 emergency medical calls.”
  • The 2017 fiscal year expense to Sarasota County related to direct and indirect services to the homeless, through not-for-profit organizations, has been estimated at $ 3,166,946. (The fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2016 and will continue through Sept. 30.)
  • The cost for calendar year 2016 for Sarasota County’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) to respond and provide initial medical assessment and to transport individuals without homes to medical care has been put at $1,960,339.
  • The expense for calendar year 2016 to incarcerate individuals without homes in the Sarasota County Jail was $3,372,600.
  • Except in places provided or where reasonably necessary, “sleeping, lying down, or reclining on public streets, sidewalks and walkways interferes with the primary purposes of pedestrian and vehicle flow on the public street, sidewalk or walkway.
  • “Public urination and defecation contribute to unsanitary conditions, potential disease, and stormwater pollution.
  • “The storage of personal property on private or public property interferes with use of the property.”

The draft May ordinance summed up those last three findings of fact: “The plight of individuals without homes who must perform certain life-sustaining activities, such as sleeping outdoors due to a lack of available space in an Available Shelter, storage of personal property outdoors, or public urination, should not be resolved through criminal sanction, but rather by encouraging the individual without a home to seek temporary lodging and aid from social services at an Available Shelter.”

Addressing panhandling

A graph compares EMS calls to assist homeless individuals based on the location where the calls originated. Image courtesy Sarasota County Emergency Services

In the section involving panhandling, the draft ordinance prohibited the following:

  • “Touching the solicited person without the solicited person’s consent;
  • “Soliciting a person while such person is a member of a captive audience, such as passengers on a public conveyance or occupants of a courthouse;
  • “Blocking the path of a person being solicited;
  • “Blocking the entrance to any building or vehicle;
  • “Following behind, ahead, or alongside a person who walks away from the solicitor after being solicited and repeatedly soliciting that person who walks away; or

• Using profane or abusive language, either during the solicitation or following a refusal, or making any statement, gesture, or other communication which would cause a reasonable person to be fearful or feel compelled.”