Sarasota City Commission remains focused on Housing First plan

Mayor Shaw calls the approach a ‘spectacular vision’ for handling the tough issue of homelessness

Susan Porciau. Image from LinkedIn
Susan Pourciau. Image from LinkedIn

During a special meeting on Oct. 27, guest speaker Susan Pourciau talked to the City Commission about academic journals’ reports of studies showing that the Housing First approach to homelessness results in 85 percent of individuals staying in the dwellings where they are placed.

But Pourciau, director of homeless training and technical assistance for the Florida Housing Coalition, also discussed her own experiences with Housing First.

One of those stories involved a man she called Ron, who was homeless in the Tallahassee area during the period when Pourciau was executive director of the Big Bend Homeless Coalition.

“Ron lived in the woods near our office. He lived in a tent for six years, pushed a shopping cart around town,” Pourciau said. “He never wore a shirt. He was one of those stereotypical … individuals [people associate with the chronically homeless]; he had a little substance abuse issue, but significant mental health issues.”

The Homeless Coalition in Tallahassee placed Ron in an apartment, she continued. “At first, he didn’t want anything to do with social services,” Pourciau said.

However, Ron soon grew accustomed to his apartment and to his visits from a social worker. “We just had to be a little patient with him,” Pourciau told the city commissioners.

Homeless people gather in a downtown Sarasota park in early 2014. News Leader archive
Homeless people gather in a downtown Sarasota park in early 2014. News Leader archive

The story illustrates two points, she indicated: It can take time — and patience on the part of service providers — for a homeless individual to accept assistance, such as counseling. Second, she explained, it shows that “home-based case management is much better than office-based case management.”

Conversely, Porciau pointed out, chronically homeless individuals are unlikely — and, in many cases — unable to adhere to the guidelines of social service programs or the rules most emergency shelters implement; thus, “they fail.”

Pourciau, along with Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, presented an overview to the commission of the Housing First model, which emphasizes long-term housing for the homeless, followed by providing individuals with the social service assistance they also need. Although some Housing First programs have been around since the 1980s, the approach is a relatively recent innovation in the treatment of the homeless, the speakers said. It is seen as an alternative to emergency shelter or a transitional housing model.

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group
City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group

After hearing from Pourciau and Ross on Oct. 27, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie made a motion to implement a plan for Housing First in the city and to determine how to “make all the links” fit together; it won unanimous support.

Mayor Willie Shaw called the Housing First principles a “spectacular vision” and said he would like further guidance from Pourciau and Ross as the city proceeds with creating a Housing First master plan.

Commissioner Susan Chapman agreed with the call for action. “We have done a lot of talking; we have a plan. Now we need an action master plan,” Chapman said after Eddie made her motion.

The city’s definitive move toward Housing First sets up another potential showdown with the Sarasota County commissioners, who have advocated for nationally known homelessness consultant Robert Marbut’s plan. The latter emphasizes the establishment of an emergency shelter where the individuals would receive services and then transition into long-term housing.

The city and county commissions are scheduled to meet Nov. 6 to discuss their approaches to chronic homelessness and to try to figure out how best to collaborate on solutions.

A shift in federal funding

Generally, the Housing First approach has two models. The first utilizes an available affordable housing inventory to secure homes for individuals, typically by providing them with rent vouchers. The second option is for a community to develop a housing complex, or re-purpose a motel or hotel into a permanent dwellings.

Miami, for example, has several “congregate apartments” that serve as permanent housing. Sarasota might have to opt for that model because of its lack of affordable housing inventory, or it might need to use a hybrid of the two models, Pourciau and Ross told the city commissioners.

Approximately one social services case manager is needed for every 25 homeless individuals who live in the housing, they noted. Additionally, other staff members may include a property manager and a maintenance person, as well as a benefits specialist who can help people apply for disability assistance and other programs that the homeless may never have sought.

Most often, Housing First programs are operated by nonprofit organizations, with assistance from local governments in the form of funding, planning or nfrastructure, Pourciau said.

Housing First is not inexpensive, something proponents are quick to point out.

Homeless people gather outside Selby Library in downtown Sarasota. News Leader archive
Homeless people gather outside Selby Library in downtown Sarasota. News Leader archive

Pourciau told the commissioners that Housing First can help them save financial resources that otherwise would go toward emergency room care or jail occupancy expenses. When it comes to securing funding, it is important to get stakeholders and community groups to the table, which is what Orlando has done in creating its master plan for a Housing First initiative, Pourciau added.

Sarasota has resources, Ross pointed out, including a strong philanthropic community and a pool of volunteers who have time to dedicate to the initiative — help that other Florida communities might not have readily at hand.

Ross and Pourciau also informed the commissioners that the Federal Government is no longer funding transitional housing — emergency shelters — because it has been shifting to the Housing First approach, and it wants to push communities toward that solution as well. The Federal Government, they said, has even discontinued funding for some shelter operations and related projects. “Some places that were getting funding for transitional housing are not getting that funding anymore,” Pourciau added.

Another showdown?

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

Commissioner Eddie said she wants city leaders to discuss the city’s move toward Housing First when they discuss homelessness with the County Commission next week. During a 15-minute segment at the beginning of that session, city staff will have the opportunity to provide an update to the county board members and staff about the Oct. 27 discussion and subsequent vote, City Manager Tom Barwin told the commissioners.

An item was also placed on the City Commission’s Nov. 2 regular meeting agenda for that evening to discuss the “strategy to implement Housing First Program to address chronic homeless challenge through the community of Sarasota.”

In the meantime, homelessness consultant Marbut has provided the county commissioners information he has learned about problems that have arisen with Housing First programs. That material was emailed to the county commissioners at 4:26 p.m. Tuesday, just a short while before the presentation by Pourciau and Ross at City Hall.

“The police told us that they have had major problems at the new ‘Housing First’ project which recently opened [in Salt Lake City],” Marbut wrote in his letter, which also contained information from a memo on Housing First that he had prepared for another community.

“Housing First is not a magic elixir,” he continued. “Housing First has not sustainably dropped homelessness.”

Marbut added, “Since Housing First does not address the root causes of homelessness, it actually does not decrease the numbers of individuals experiencing homelessness (eg [sic] it gives a roof over one’s heard but does not address the issues that caused the loss of housing in the first place).”

He also wrote, “Since Housing First is VERY expensive and is exponentially more expensive year-over-year, cities are finding Housing First is not financially sustainable.”