Representatives of agencies that help the homeless dispute assertions of former homelessness consultant during town hall organized by Sarasota vice mayor

Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness provides detailed response to city commissioners

Robert Marbut addresses attendees at the Nov. 24 town hall. Image from Facebook

Representatives of agencies that are members of the Continuum of Care for homeless persons in Sarasota and Manatee counties pushed back this week against comments Robert Marbut, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, offered during a Nov. 24 town hall session organized by Sarasota Vice Mayor Erik “E” Arroyo, who was elected on Nov. 6.

In late summer of 2013, the Sarasota City and County commissions hired Marbut, who then worked as an independent consultant, to come to the community, assess the homelessness situation and offer workable recommendations for addressing it.

During the Dec. 16 Continuum of Care (CoC) meeting, conducted by Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, Jennifer Johnston, senior community investment officer for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, took issue with Marbut’s own admission during the town hall that he had just driven around the city before offering his remarks about the status of homelessness in the community.

As he addressed the town hall participants last month, Marbut said, “I drove around both this morning” and the previous evening. “Your [city of Sarasota] downtown single adult males, single adult females, are still very high,” he added, referring to the homeless individuals he saw.

“Our board of directors have invested heavily in homelessness services,” Johnston pointed out during the CoC discussion, contending that Marbut’s points during the town hall lacked credibility.

People in the county who had been homeless for many years have had the services of the Continuum of Care available to them, Johnston continued. Those services have enabled individuals to be able to move into permanent housing, she added.

During the town hall, Marbut voiced his continuing disapproval of putting a focus on rapid rehousing programs. Just because such an initiative “is well intentioned,” he said, “doesn’t mean it’s going to work.”

Rapid rehousing “is … designed to help individuals and families to quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing,” the National Alliance to End Homelessness explains. “It is offered without preconditions (such as employment, income, absence of criminal record, or sobriety) and the resources and services provided are typically tailored to the unique needs of the household,” the Alliance adds.

Marbut characterized rapid rehousing as a matter of how fast a homeless individual can go from his or her first meeting with a case worker to getting into housing. Instead, he advocated for ensuring first that homeless persons have become self-sufficient and then helping them move into housing.

Leslie Loveless, then-executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, listens to then-Capt. Kevin Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department make a presentation about the Homeless Outreach Team program in February 2016. File photo

Kevin Stiff, the coordinator of services to the homeless for the City of Sarasota, pointed out during the CoC meeting that when he has provided updates to the City Commission, he has explained, “‘There’s no solution to homelessness as we know it.’” The only solution, he added, is “building a path to ending homelessness. There’s a way into the system, and at the other end, there’s housing.”

The Suncoast Partnership manages the Community Services Information System (CSIS) for Sarasota and Manatee counties. That is “an electronic database used to accumulate information on the characteristics of those at risk of homelessness or already homeless, tracking service delivery by continuum members,” the Partnership’s website explains. The CSIS enables community case managers “to assist those who are homeless as they map out personalized plans to become permanently housed,” the website adds.

“I think we’ve done a phenomenal job,” Stiff continued during the CoC meeting, referring to the community’s response to homelessness. “But if anybody has criticism,” he said, “I would suggest this would be the forum for it, so we can work on gaps. … We need to identify those. … I would welcome any of those suggestions or opportunities that we can do better.”

When Marbut came to Sarasota County in 2013, city and county leaders were contemplating taking a bigger step to try to reduce homelessness. During a two-day visit to the area, before he was hired to undertake four months of consulting work, Marbut went on tours and participated in meetings, including a forum that the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County sponsored, as then-Sarasota News Leader City Editor Stan Zimmerman reported in August 2013. “During his brief stay,” Zimmerman wrote, “it was evident Marbut had earned the respect of local leaders.”

The total expense for Marbut’s services was $40,000, Zimmerman pointed out.

During the Dec. 16 CoC meeting, Marcella Levin of Sarasota, a member of the Suncoast Partnership Board of Directors, also addressed the Nov. 24 town hall. “I think that Dr. Marbut was very disappointed because our region did not accept his proposal for this huge place out in Newtown, where he wanted every homeless person to go.”

During the town hall, Marbut told the attendees, “The big thing that I think … and this obviously gets all the sort of political energy, emotional energy, is you never built a site that dealt with your volume.”

This page in the Nov. 30, 2013 edition of The Sarasota News Leader shows Marbut making his presentation to the City and County commissions and offers details about the discussion that ensued.

The shelter was the key recommendation on a list that Marbut produced for the city and county to pursue. If such a facility were constructed in the community, he predicted that 85% to 91% of the area’s homeless population would enter it. He also explained that the shelter could serve as a hub for an array of social services, including substance abuse and mental health counseling, and job training.

However, city commissioners — especially then-Commissioner Willie Shaw, who represented the Newtown area — complained that it was unfair for that part of the community to be home to such a shelter, which Marbut had indicated could house 200 to 300 people. Shaw emphasized that many of the agencies that provide services to the homeless already had offices in north Sarasota, and the Salvation Army emergency shelter was on 10th Street.

Ultimately, with division between the City and County commissions over how best to proceed, no shelter ever was created.

On Dec. 16, Paul Sutton, executive director of the Sarasota Coalition on Substance Abuse, told the other CoC meeting attendees, “I just think we’ve moved way beyond Marbut. I’m really proud of what the community has done. We have ended homelessness for a lot of people.”

“[Marbut] came here saying that we didn’t work together,” Sutton continued. “This Continuum of Care is a great example that that’s not at all true.”

Paul Sutton is a retired Sarasota Police Department officer. Image courtesy of the Sarasota Coalition on Substance Abuse

At the time of Marbut’s hiring as a consultant to the city and county, Sutton, a retired Sarasota Police Department officer, was chair of the community Homeless Committee.

(As the Suncoast Partnership website explains it, “The CoC model envisions a network of service providers sharing information and resources, while also providing a range of services including: prevention, outreach to those most in need, assessment, referral, case management, supportive services, employment services, in-patient and out-patient mental health and substance abuse treatment, medical and dental care, financial assistance,  legal assistance, emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent and supported housing.”)

Praise and more criticism

In welcoming attendees to the town hall on Nov. 24, Vice Mayor Arroyo said his hope was that the forum would provide “actionable items that the city and county can take” — not ideas, he stressed — “to help reduce our transient homeless population.”

Arroyo added, “I do believe, as a city, we do an amazing job of helping homeless families. … But we lack in providing services to the chronically homeless that choose to have that lifestyle.”

“We have seven years of numbers here,” Marbut told the town hall attendees. “It’s not been good.”

Marbut told the audience, “What is sad to me is so many people are reactionary and unwilling to look at the data and analyses and have honest conversations.”

However, “You all do have the absolute best family/youth/unaccompanied minor children [programs],” he continued. Twice in the previous week, he noted, he was asked where the best of such programs exist, “and I said Sarasota, Fla.”

Photos in a 2019 Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office’s report to the County Commission show the department’s Office Homeless Outreach Team members at work. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

That is largely a result of the support of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and two other foundations, he added, without naming them. He also noted the involvement of the Sarasota Y and the Sarasota County School District in those efforts.

“You all have had some of the best innovative youth programs in the [United States],” Marbut added.

Yet, community leaders did not pursue such an approach with single male and female adult homeless persons, he stressed again.

Further, Marbut pointed out, Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTS) “never really got implemented [countywide].”

The Sarasota Police Department has had HOT members for a number of years, and, with County Commission support, the Sheriff’s Office established a HOT in the early summer of 2018.

In a telephone interview with the News Leader after the CoC meeting, Johnston of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation noted Marbut’s comments about Homeless Outreach Teams as another example of his lack of awareness about what has taken place in the community since he completed his consulting contract.

Reality versus assertions

Chris Johnson is the CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. Image courtesy of the nonprofit

In response to Marbut’s town hall remarks, Chris Johnson, the CEO of the Suncoast Partnership, provided information to the Sarasota city commissioners, a copy of which the News Leader requested this week.

Johnson wrote about his review of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness’ Expanding the Toolbox strategic plan, which he found on its website. Criticism of the housing first approach, Johnson noted, is spread throughout that plan. The Council’s document says that the federal government’s policy shift in 2013 “to prioritizing housing first as a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked to reduce homelessness for all populations and communities,” Johnson pointed out. Further, the plan says, “In just five years, unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5 percent from 175,399 in 2014 to 211,293 in 2019.”

However, Johnson continued, “The Housing First approach in our community has produced data that tells a very different story” than the Council’s report. “No approach works for every individual,” he added, “but in our area,” 80% of those engaged in housing first find themselves in permanent housing.

Over the past four years, he noted, 64% of the persons who were assisted through the rapid rehousing program went to a permanent housing destination, “and 85% of those remained housed.”

Further, Johnson wrote, 60% of those placed in Permanent Supportive Housing remain stably housed in their home.” Of those who left Permanent Supportive Housing for another housing situation, he added, 90% remain in homes.

Johnson also offered data from the annual Point-in-Time counts of the homeless in Sarasota and Manatee counties. The total fell 34% from the 2016-2017 fiscal year to the 2019-2020 fiscal year, he noted.

“Shelter is not the answer to homelessness,” Johnson wrote. Instead, he continued, “housing is the solution.”

This is a Nov. 24 City of Sarasota fact sheet on the municipality’s response to homelessness. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Gulf Coast Community Foundation success stories

After the Dec. 16 CoC session, Johnston of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation also sent the News Leader an email, elaborating on her remarks during the meeting.

Jennifer Johnston. Image courtesy Gulf Coast Community Foundation

“Gulf Coast Community Foundation and our generous donors support our Continuum of Care by filling gaps such as increasing Rapid Rehousing for the long-term homeless, helping unaccompanied youth ages 16-24 so they don’t enter homeless services, and adding outreach staff like the Re-Entry Navigators at the jail,” she wrote.

“Sarasota has created a path to permanent housing for those suffering from homelessness. While there is still great need,” she continued, “the progress our community has made in helping those who have been homeless the longest is worth celebrating. This year, 271 individuals of the highest acuity of need overcame homelessness and achieved permanent housing. Despite the pandemic and escalating needs, our community is on track to reach the ambitious goals we set one year ago.”

Then she offered a sampling of success stories:

  • “This story was shared with us by the Sarasota County Homeless Outreach Team because Gulf Coast Community Foundation helps to support the Reentry Navigators [a program the Sheriff’s Office has started in the jail], St. Vincent de Paul Rapid Rehousing, and local outreach case managers: “For the first time in five years, James is in a permanent home for the holidays — thanks to his commitment to better his own life and the coordinated help of several programs. James had been homeless off and on for several years before he spent a year in the Sarasota County Jail. While there, he expressed interest in improving his life, and began working with the jail’s Reentry Navigators on a plan. Upon his release, the Reentry Navigators connected James with the Homeless Outreach Team, who helped him enter into services at The Salvation Army. There he worked on getting his [Social Security] benefits restarted, since they had been cut off during his incarceration. Because of his length of homelessness and disabled status, Suncoast Partnership identified James as eligible for Rapid Rehousing assistance through St. Vincent de Paul. In October, he transitioned from The Salvation Army’s shelter into his own apartment. James will continue to receive case management through St. Vincent de Paul until he is comfortable living fully independently. Meanwhile, he has shown continuous commitment to bettering his life, utilizing every resource available to him.”
  • “From St. Vincent de Paul: Cynthia is deaf and, fortunately, was already connected to translation services. In addition to Cynthia’s disability, she was also a survivor of domestic violence and had received a 10 on the Vulnerability Index (extremely high). It was apparent early on to her Case Manager that Permanent Supportive Housing was going to be the best option for Cynthia long term. With the collaboration from other agencies, Cynthia received hearing aid assistance and was able to perform some of her tasks without a translator. Locating housing was challenging — taking more than 6 months to locate a unit that would meet her needs and be affordable once the assistance ended, a small permanent supportive housing complex in North Port. Cynthia moved into permanent housing in October 2019. Cynthia assumed full responsibility for paying her rent last December.”