Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Team has helped 80 people get into emergency shelter since beginning informal launch on June 1

Sheriff Knight provides statistics and case histories

Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Since the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office unofficially launched its Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) on June 1, the team members of have been in contact with more than 300 individuals and have placed 80 of them in beds at the Salvation Army shelter in Sarasota, Sheriff Tom Knight has announced.

During an Oct. 18 press conference, Knight explained that the people willing to accept help can transition from the Salvation Army into regular housing, thanks to the assistance of community social service agencies.

Oct. 18 marked the official launch of the HOT program for the Sheriff’s Office, Knight noted.

Among the people who have received aid as a result of the HOT members’ efforts, Knight said, were 30 veterans.

“There’s no place in jail for somebody who’s chronically homeless,” Knight pointed out. The goal is to help them, he added, not arrest them.

In late November 2017, the County Commission agreed that Knight and his staff should field a HOT in a program similar to the one that has operated in the city of Sarasota for a number of years under the aegis of the Sarasota Police Department.

On Nov. 14, 2017, the board unanimously had approved a new set of regulations called a Quality of Life Ordinance, which was written in an effort to resolve issues with vagrants and homeless individuals. Arrest would be the last resort, the commissioners agreed, if someone was violating county regulations — such as sleeping overnight in a county park — and refused all attempts at assistance.

On Oct. 18, Knight noted that Bill Spitler, who has served as the head of research and planning for the Sheriff’s Office, has become the coordinator of the office’s homelessness services.

Case Manager Nancy Williams speaks with a man in a homeless camp in a scene from a video produced by the Sheriff’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

The Homeless Outreach Team works 40 hours a week, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Knight said. However, services for homeless individuals are offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with deputies having been trained on how to help people when the HOT is not available, Knight pointed out.

In November, 29017, Knight estimated that a HOT comprising two deputies, two mental health clinicians — known as case managers — and a sergeant who would serve as a field supervisor would cost $540,700 a year.

During the Oct. 18 press conference, however, he explained that he and his staff decided to keep expenses down by starting out with just one deputy and the two case managers.

The annual cost for the two case managers was projected at $139,368, Knight said on Jan. 30, when the County Commission formally approved the funding for the program. The yearly expense for two law enforcement officers was put then at $134,666. Additional funds would be needed for uniforms, weapons, communication equipment and vehicles, Knight said during the Jan. 30 board meeting.

The team at work

A Sheriff’s Office video shown during the press conference provided an overview of the HOT program’s efforts.

Through outreach, referrals and agency-generated reports, Knight explained, the team works to establish relationships of trust with homeless individuals, so the team members can educate the people about the services available and encourage them to accept assistance from social services and agencies throughout Sarasota County.

In another scene from the video, a deputy and Nancy Williams talk with a homeless person about assistance they can provide. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Team members focus on housing, providing aid to veterans and identifying medical services for mental health issues and substance abuse, he added.

Although the number of homeless people in the county has declined over the past few years, Knight pointed out, the issue of homelessness remained one of the Top 10 concerns of county residents who participated in the annual Citizen Opinion Survey in June. Of the people who took part in that survey, he added, 42% said homelessness is the most important issue affecting the quality of life in the county.

Knight provided a sample of success stories the HOT already has achieved.

In one case, he said, the team members were able to persuade a 63-year-old diabetic man in Nokomis, who had been homeless for about 12 years, to let them take him to the Salvation Army. The man, who is an amputee who has struggled with mental health issues, had been in contact with social service agencies over the past five years, Knight added. However, the man had been unable to find housing.

Once the man was staying in the Salvation Army’s shelter, Knight continued, the man was able to get his blood sugar regulated and a new prescription for medication that he needed. Further, the man received assistance in getting regular Social Security payments, for which he was eligible.

Thanks to the work of the HOT members in getting him off the street, Knight added, the man has been able to move into a room in a house and has regular contact with a case manager.

A second situation involved a 66-year-old woman who was making a Sarasota County Area Transit bus shelter her home, Knight said. When the HOT members found her, he pointed out, the woman had oozing sores on her legs, which were drawing flies. She had defecated and urinated on herself, he said, because it was difficult for her to walk. “The woman was not mentally stable enough to communicate [well].”

These are items found in a homeless camp, as shown in the video. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Following hours of discussion, Knight continued, the HOT members were able to get her to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. She was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, he said, and she stayed there for a week because of the seriousness of her situation.

Afterward, she was able to move to a regular floor of the hospital, he added, and a case manager was able to put together a discharge plan for her.

A private investigator hired by the hospital, Knight continued, was able to determine that the woman had two children who were put into foster care when the youngsters were 6 and 8. Thanks to the private investigator’s work, he said, the adult sons visited the woman in the hospital. One agreed to become her medical surrogate, Knight noted.

When the woman was discharged, he added, she went to a nursing facility where both her mental and physical health issues could be addressed.

A community team

(From left) Mark Pritchett of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Sheriff Tom Knight, County Commission Chair Nancy Detert and Lt. Will Conley of the Salvation Army appear at the Oct. 18 press conference. News Leader photo

Knight was joined at the press conference by Nancy Detert, chair of the County Commission; Mark Pritchett, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation; and Lt. Will Conley of the Salvation Army.

The sheriff “keeps coming up with these great ideas,” Detert said of Knight. “He’s very expensive to know,” she joked.

On a serious note, she pointed out that the HOT program is among “real practical solutions” to homelessness. “The fact that you could get it up and running that quickly is just amazing,” Detert told Knight.

Pritchett explained that the Gulf Coast Community Foundation began addressing homelessness issues about six years ago, starting with programs to help children.

With adults, Pritchett continued, “you can’t arrest yourself to success …” He added that the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office “is actually leading the state” among its peers in its program to help homeless adults.

“Our role,” Pritchett explained, “is to find affordable housing.” He noted the recent groundbreaking in Sarasota for Arbor Village, where 80 adult homeless people will be able to live after that project has been completed. “We’ll need to see more of that.”

Finally, Knight introduced Conley, who talked about how the Salvation Army provides a safe and secure place for people to stay as they make a transition to stable housing. “The restoration of their dignity tends to be transformative,” Conley added.

Having experienced homelessness himself, Conley continued, “I realized just on a very surface level how homelessness can be viewed.