Commissioner Shaw wins unanimous board support for motion
Following unanimous passage this week of a motion Sarasota City Commissioner Willie Shaw made, city staff will initiate a discussion with Salvation Army representatives about the potential purchase of the nonprofit’s 10th Street Center of Hope.
That facility is the primary homeless shelter in the county.
Shaw had asked that that topic be placed on the agenda for the board’s regular meeting on June 1.
As he has during recent sessions, Shaw talked again this week about the number of homeless individuals he has been seeing routinely on the streets in the mornings, close to the Center of Hope’s location at 1400 10th St. His latest count, Shaw added, was 48.
Additionally, Shaw noted, he understood that one of the homeless persons who has been sleeping outside recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, which raises the concern about that person potentially infecting others.
His feeling, Shaw continued, is that the Salvation Army has outgrown the 10th Street property. Therefore, he was seeking his colleagues’ support to allow staff to open a dialogue with leaders of the organization.
“I have no problem with staff looking into this and starting a conversation with the Salvation Army,” Commissioner Hagen Brody responded. However, Brody continued, “Obviously, financially, we’re not in a great spot to be purchasing properties.”
Brody was referring to the impact the novel coronavirus has had on the economy at all levels. The downturn already has necessitated city administrative staff’s taking steps to control costs for the rest of this fiscal year.
The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records for the Salvation Army site at 1400 10th St. show that the total area of land is 162,100 square feet, which is approximately 3.7 acres. In 2019, the market value of the property was $10,102,400, those records show. The Salvation Army bought the parcel in December 1998 for $460,000, the records note.
“The Salvation Army is the service provider for the entire county, for the most part,” Brody added, referring to homelessness issues. When insufficient space is available for persons to stay inside the Center of Hope, he said, that results in “a great burden on our city resources …”
Commissioner Liz Alpert agreed with the proposal for initiating a discussion with the Salvation Army. Nonetheless, she pointed to the fact that “a lot of moving parts [would be] involved with purchasing a parcel of this size.”
Among the questions that would have to be answered, she continued, would be where the Salvation Army would relocate the services it provides at the Center of Hope.
Several years ago, Shaw told her, city commissioners began talking about the fact that the Salvation Army has a number of properties outside the city limits “that could be used for the homeless.”
Then Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie noted the difficulties that the Salvation Army and other service providers have had in dealing with the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including social distancing, in trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless.
She stressed that federal money is available for communities addressing homelessness-related issues relevant to the public health emergency. City staff and the city’s lobbyists can help ensure that the City of Sarasota obtains some of that funding, she added, potentially on a fast track.
When Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked City Manager Tom Barwin whether he needed a motion, given the apparent consensus of the commissioners, Barwin replied that he already had provided Salvation Army Major Charles Whiten a “heads up” about Shaw’s having placed the item on the agenda. Barwin added that Whiten had indicated a willingness to talk about the proposal.
Still, Barwin continued, it would be a “stronger statement” if the commission took a vote, as the commission is the “policy-setting board of this city …”
Shaw then made the motion to direct staff to proceed with talks about the possible purchase of the 10th Street property, and Commissioner Brody seconded it.
“I don’t want to discount the good work that the Salvation Army does in this community,” Brody said. However, he continued, “This location is extremely tough for the city to manage,” especially as homeless individuals from as far away as North Port are brought to the facility for assistance.
“We really do need to find a more therapeutic location for a shelter of that size,” Brody added.
(The Homeless Outreach Team of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office does transport willing individuals from South County to the Salvation Army Center of Hope, William Spitler, leader of that team, has told the County Commission. However, at the County Commission’s direction, county staff is seeking a site in South County where an emergency shelter could be created.)
Freeland Eddie emphasized her desire for the staff discussions to focus first on improvement of the delivery of services at the Center of Hope. Then, she said, staff could talk about the possible purchase of the property. However, she also voiced concern about the “unintended consequences” of city staff members ending up having to manage emergency shelter operations, “which we are not qualified to do.”
“I’m fully in support of us looking at how can we make this [situation] better,” she said.
‘A key partner’
As the discussion continued, Barwin pointed out that the Salvation Army “has been a key partner with the city” in trying to reduce homelessness in the community. He referred to the 2020 Point in Time survey results, showing the numbers of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons in the city in late January. (The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness released the report last week.)
Since 2016, Barwin stressed, the number of homeless individuals counted in the city limits has dropped from 632 to 335. “That is a nearly … 50% reduction. We should not let this [purchase proposal be perceived] as anything other than to strengthen our partnership and collaboration [with the Salvation Army]. … Hopefully,” he added, “this conversation will lead to further improvements.”
“I want to be as compassionate to this conversation as I possibly can,” Commissioner Shaw responded, with the focus being on the quality of life for all city residents.
Shaw also concurred with Freeland Eddie’s comments about the need for city staff and the city’s lobbyists to try to secure some of the federal funding for assistance to the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic.