Up to 30 beds are available, but the city pays only for those used for individuals receiving assistance through its HOT teams
On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved the renewal of a contract with the Salvation Army that provides for up to 30 emergency shelter beds for homeless individuals.
The city’s two Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT) have been using 20 beds on a regular basis at a cost of $225,000 a year, a memo to the board explained in advance of the Nov. 21 meeting.
When Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked why the city was being asked to pay for 10 extra beds, Capt. Kevin Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department — who supervises the HOT teams — replied, “We have no thought of going to 30.” However, as he and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown explained, the city has had the ability since 2015 to use as many as 30. The city pays for each bed as it is occupied, Brown pointed out. “We don’t give a check to the Salvation Army for [all] those  beds.”
“I guess I’m just trying to get a handle on what we are using,” from a budget standpoint, Eddie told him.
“We are maintaining at least 80% occupancy of the beds,” Stiff responded.
The HOT teams’ schedule calls for them to do outreach to homeless individuals in the city on Tuesdays, he continued. That gives the Police Department staff three days to try to determine how many beds it will need, especially, on weekends.
In 2014, when the first HOT team was organized, Stiff told the commissioners, the department won the board’s approval to reserve six beds at the Salvation Army so officers could deal with issues of people violating the city ordinance that bans lodging out of doors.
Later, Stiff noted, the department sought authorization from the commission to increase the bed count to 10. Then, in 2015, it asked for an agreement to ensure that 20 beds always would be available, but also to allow for flexibility to increase the number to 30. “It’s a bed; it’s not a mat on the floor,” Stiff stressed.
In the fall and spring, especially, Stiff pointed out, the HOT teams typically see a lot more homeless people moving through the area. Therefore, during those times of year, the need for extra beds may arise. “Over the weekend,” he said, “I had a situation where the beds were full.” Later in the year, he continued, “We’ll go back down to 20.”
With two HOT teams working in the city — each comprising an officer and a case management worker — “we have made several thousand contacts with homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota,” Stiff explained. “To date, over 500 individuals have been taken to the Salvation Army by officers or case managers.” Of those, he continued, more than half have requested additional services offered through the Salvation Army and the Continuum of Care — the nonprofit organization in Sarasota and Manatee counties that comprises more than 20 organizations that provide various types of assistance to the homeless.
“I know that there is a wide variety of what people think we should or shouldn’t do about the homeless issue,” Stiff told the commissioners, “but I do not believe there is anybody … that does not believe case management is part of the solution. I believe these beds are vital for us to continue with our education, encouragement and enforcement policy that we started earlier this year.”
Stiff was referring to the department’s efforts to educate homeless individuals about the services available to them and to encourage them to accept help. When individuals violate city laws and refuse help, he added, officers enforce those laws.
When Eddie asked about enforcement, Stiff replied, “I would say that most of your arrests in the downtown area” are not related to quality-of-life issues but for use of narcotics, open container violations and disorderly conduct.
Individuals who have repeatedly refused assistance in the past have been known to change their minds long after a HOT team first has approached them, Stiff noted. One such individual who had declined help over the past two or three years is in a bed at the Salvation Army and expected to be able to get into housing, he added.
Another person who “has spent a considerable amount of time at the Salvation Army” on his own or in a HOT team bed approached a team on Nov. 21, Stiff said, and asked for an opportunity to seek formal assistance.
When Commissioner Susan Chapman asked specifically whether the HOT teams track the individuals who end up using the beds, Maj. Ethan Frizzell, who commands the Salvation Army in Sarasota, explained that, out of concern that such tracking might lead to legal issues, no attempt was made to keep separate statistics about the individuals assisted by the HOT teams. The goal was not to differentiate among the people the Salvation Army helped, he added.
However, he indicated, given the success of the HOT teams, the Homeless Management Intake System database set up in the county will make such tracking possible from here on out. “I think people would be hard-pressed to show that this is anything but a compassionate community response,” he added of the HOT teams’ approach.
As for the statistics he did have: Frizzell said that last year, the Salvation Army handled 1,594 emergency cases. Of those individuals, 908 ended up leaving the shelter without seeking further assistance. Overall, data has shown that 57% of homeless persons typically are in that situation on a short-term basis, he pointed out.
This year, he continued, 390 people have received shelter at the Salvation Army, and 263 individuals have been able to move into housing. He called those “very impressive numbers for our size [of] community.”
Continued concerns of downtown businesses
During the discussion, Chapman pointed out that she had spoken within the past week with a couple of downtown merchants “who are raising extreme concerns about defecation and urination at their businesses, and they feel that that issue is not being addressed adequately.”
Homelessness in downtown Sarasota “has greatly decreased” over the past three years, Stiff replied. Nonetheless, he said, “not every individual is going to disappear from the streets.”
In response to those merchants’ complaints, Stiff added, he has asked the HOT teams and officers on night patrol to pay special attention to the areas where those businesses are located.
“We can change the issue, but it is not going to happen overnight,” Stiff said.
Additionally, Deputy City Manager Brown explained, he has asked Frizzell to have the Street Teams to break up into details during certain shifts to provide more cleaning for the areas around those merchants’ businesses, as well, including alleyways and alcoves. The Street Team members who work on the 7 and 11 a.m. shifts and those on the 1 and 6 p.m. shifts are taking on that special role, Brown added.
Street Teams comprise homeless individuals who work under Salvation Army supervision to pick up trash and clean city streets. Their participation on the teams has led to a number of them getting offers of regular employment in the community, the Salvation Army has reported.
Frizzell also told the board on Nov. 21 that he has tried to explain to church groups and individuals that they are not actually helping the homeless in the downtown area by feeding them. “In fact, they are helping people to stay in a very diminished capacity.”
Stiff added that merchants who feed homeless people and give them money also should cease those practices if they want to see the downtown situation improved.
On Nov. 17, Stiff continued, he saw a van pull up in the area of City Hall, to provide meals to the homeless. He talked with the driver, he said. Such conversations always end, he noted, with the person he addresses telling him, “‘I’m doing God’s work, and this is what I am going to continue to do.’”
Yet, such people could call any of the nonprofit organizations in the community that provide services to the homeless, Stiff said, and representatives of every one of those organizations would tell them they are not helping the homeless by feeding them that way.
Mayor Willie Shaw, who attended the National League of Cities’ conference in Pittsburgh last week, told his colleagues that he learned from discussions about homelessness during that event that “we are so much further along with our HOT teams” than other municipalities are with handling the issue.