Sheriff’s Office Homeless Outreach Teams funded by County Commission to support Quality of Life Ordinance

Goal is to have employees trained before new county regulations go into effect on March 31 regarding sleeping out of doors and storage of personal property on public land

A homeless man sits in the Siesta Village gazebo in August 2016. File photo

It took only about 3 minutes on Jan. 30 for the Sarasota County Commission to unanimously approve an allocation of “a small amount of money [that would] have a huge impact,” as Chair Nancy Detert pointed out.

On a motion by Commissioner Charles Hines, with a second by Commissioner Alan Maio, the board agreed to a $725,606 budget amendment that will fund the creation of Homeless Outreach Teams (HOTs) for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. The goal is to have officers and social workers trained and ready to work by March 31, when the county’s new Quality of Life Ordinance goes into effect.

The HOTs would operate much as the City of Sarasota’s teams do, Sheriff Tom Knight explained to the board on Nov. 28, 2017. They would interact with homeless individuals to try to gain the persons’ willingness to accept assistance, including emergency shelter, instead of violating county regulations, such as sleeping in a park overnight or storing a multitude of personal items on public land.

If an individual ultimately refused every team attempt to provide assistance, and the individual continued to violate county regulations, then, as a last resort, the person would be arrested.

Sheriff Tom Knight. Image courtesy Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office

Commissioners have stressed that they want to see homeless individuals receive the support they need to find stability in their lives and permanent housing. Knight also has been adamant about not wanting to jail people for the types of offenses covered by the Quality of Life Ordinance. However, he expressed the view that outreach by specially trained teams was the key to making the new Quality of Life Ordinance work as the commissioners have envisioned.

With the board members last year having held one-on-one meetings with Sheriff’s Office staff, in addition to public discussions, no one had a question during the commission’s regular meeting on Jan. 30 when Chair Detert asked whether anyone desired a staff presentation on the funding of the HOTs.

The Jan. 30 motion provides $475,606 for five employees for six months, along with the initial purchase of vehicles and equipment, and a property storage facility, according to a Jan. 30 staff memo to the commission. The cost of the equipment is $237,124, the memo noted, which will not be a recurring expense.

Knight’s staff in November 2017 projected the expense at $617,000, but Major Paul Richard, who leads the Law Enforcement Division, told the commissioners then that Sheriff’s Office staff would make an effort to secure good deals on the vehicles, which could result in a lower total.

Expenses and responsibilities

The county staff memo provided to the board in advance of the Jan. 30 meeting said the Sheriff’s Office projection for the annual cost of the HOT operations has fallen to $405,788. The team members will be two licensed mental health clinicians, two sworn deputies and a supervising sergeant, the memo explained. The teams will work in the unincorporated areas of the county and collaborate with other agencies through the coordinated entry system supervised by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. That database tracks all services provided to every homeless individual who receives assistance in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Sarasota County’s General Services Department will be responsible for the storage of property, in conjunction with Sheriff’s Office enforcement of the Quality of Life Ordinance, the memo said. That department’s action will be triggered when a homeless person has too much property for the emergency shelter or the jail to accommodate, depending upon where the person will be transported, the memo noted. The storage facility is expected to be 20 feet by 20 feet, the memo added; its cost has been estimated at $23,000.

Wayne Applebee is the county’s director of services to the homeless. File photo

No extra General Services staff is anticipated to be needed to manage the property, the memo said.

However, the memo continued, “These [General Services] needs will be re-evaluated during initial operations and any further resources identified would be included in the [2019 fiscal year] budget process.”

The remainder of the funds the commissioners approved on Jan. 30 would go toward improvements and repairs at the Sheriff’s Office Mounted Patrol barn in South County, the memo explained. That work will encompass the covering of stall floors with concrete; the addition of a drainage system and an automatic watering system; the replacement of damaged exterior walls; and repairs to damaged fencing. Those expenses are estimated at $250,000, the memo noted.

After the vote, Commissioner Hines pointed out that the creation of the HOT teams “is a really big deal. It’s all coming together,” he added, referring to significant steps within the community to address homelessness.

“It’s been a long road,” Hines said, “but I think we’re really at that point where we’re really going to start making a difference in our community and in people’s lives.”

Hines thanked all the staff members who had worked on the initiatives.

Commissioner Alan Maio then noted that private funds have been contributed through community foundations to supplement public funding in establishing the responses to homelessness that a consultant recommended last year in a report commissioned by the City of Sarasota. The report won endorsements from both the City and County commissions.

Referring to the Jan. 30 vote, Maio added, “This is further movement of us working side-by-side with other jurisdictions, especially the City of Sarasota.”

Chair Detert specifically thanked Wayne Applebee, the county’s director of services to the homeless. “You have solved many unsolvable problems,” she told him.

The vote was scheduled as an item on the agenda among a series that day with the notation “Presentations Upon Request.” Even though no presentation was requested on it, Detert added, the funding for the teams was “too important to just whiz by it [without comment].”