Figures reflect local government efforts to help the homeless in transitioning into housing
In February 2019, the Sarasota County Fire Department responded 93 times to calls about homeless individuals needing medical assistance, and its firefighters/paramedics transported 87.1% of the persons to a hospital, county records show.
The total number of transports was down 14.7%, compared to the figure for February 2018, the report emphasized. Additionally, the Fire Department noted a 20.5% decrease in the number of calls from homeless individuals from February 2018 to February 2019.
Twelve months later, in February of this year, the Fire Department responded to 69 calls and transported 73.9% of the persons to a hospital, that report said. The decrease in transports from February 2019 was 37%, the report emphasized, while the total number of calls was down 25.8%.
Moreover, the February report showed, the Fire Department received no calls whatsoever involving homeless individuals in the city of Venice.
The total number of transports for homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota marked a drop of 25.8% from February 2019 to February of this year, as well, the report said.
In a March 9 email to the city commissioners and top city administrators, City Manager Tom Barwin noted the latest February data. “Although these numbers have been moving in the right direction for many months now,” he wrote, “there remains work to do to further reduce these numbers and evolve to where street homelessness and EMS transports are lessened even further.”
In January, the Fire Department reported a 38.6% drop in transports of homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota, compared to the January 2019 data. It also noted a countywide decline of 43.2% in those transports, compared to the figure for January 2019. Altogether, 46 of the 62 people who needed assistance were taken to hospitals, the report for January of this year said.
Responding to that report, Barwin emailed the city commissioners and other city administrators on Feb. 5, writing, “The trend continues to move in the right directions. Progress is both subtle yet stunningly positive. Thanks to all involved.”
The trends for March 2019 compared to March 2018 underscored the growing decline, those reports show. Typically the busiest month of the year for the number of visitors in the county, March 2019 saw a 32.1% decrease in the number of transports for homeless individuals to a hospital, compared to March 2018. The number of calls countywide fell 30.5%, month-over-month, the report said.
Further, the drop for transports in the city of Sarasota from March 2018 to March 2019 was 42%, the report noted.
Even with the impact of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 being felt in Sarasota County starting in March of this year, the latest figures continue to underscore the decrease in transports.
For March 2020, the total number of transports was down 36.5%, compared to the figure for March 2019, the latest report shows. And while 13 transports were recorded in Venice in March 2019, the city had none in March of this year.
The only increase came in the city of Sarasota, with transports up from 51 in March 2019 to 56 in March of this year.
Overall, the Fire Department report for this March said, only 47 — 63.5% — of the 74 homeless individuals who needed assistance were transported to a hospital.
The report added that one patient was transported three times, and three patients were transported twice. Those figures also showed a marked decline from the data for March 2019. In that month, one patient was transported 10 times, while another was transported four times and eight were transported twice.
Reflection of response to recommendations
The Fire Department reports have been one major source of data for local government leaders assessing the impact of initiatives the City of Sarasota and Sarasota County have taken to assist homeless people in transitioning off the streets into housing.
A comprehensive 2017 report that the city and county commissioned from the Florida Housing Coalition outlined a number of steps that could be taken to alleviate problems in the county. Both the City and County commissions adopted that report and have worked through their staffs to implement its recommendations.
The most recent county effort involved the establishment of a Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) through the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Earlier this year, the County Commission asked staff to facilitate that team’s work — at the recommendation of its own staff and Sheriff Tom Knight’s staff — by establishing a facility in South County where homeless individuals could be housed.
Bill Spitler, coordinator of the Sheriff’s Office’s services for the homeless, explained that many of the South County homeless individuals the team works with refuse to be taken to the Salvation Army emergency shelter in Sarasota, which has beds the county reserves for HOT use. Spitler pointed out that the homeless in South County generally have ties to their community and want to remain there.
Because of the community response to the COVID-19 pandemic, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis noted in an April 22 update to the commissioners that staff is expected to complete its report on South County emergency shelter options by May 31. The board requested the information after listening to March 10 presentations by Spitler; Jon Thaxton, former county commissioner and senior vice president for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation; and Wayne Applebee, senior manager in the county’s Health and Human Services Department.
After the report has been provided for the board’s review, Lewis’ written update said, staff will schedule a discussion with the commissioners regarding how to pay for the facility.