Multiple anecdotes offered, but no resolution reached
A sight that caught Siesta Key resident Michael Shay’s eye twice on the morning of Aug. 2 has underscored a problem that has become more obvious on the barrier island in the past couple of months: homelessness.
Shay was on his regular early morning walk on Aug. 2 when he first saw two individuals, who appeared to be homeless, in the gazebo at the intersection of Ocean Boulevard, Avenida Messina and Canal Road, he told 17 people attending the monthly meeting of the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) that same day. That was about 5:15 a.m., he said. When he passed the gazebo again about 8:20 a.m. — on his way to the SKVA session — two people were sleeping on benches inside the structure, he continued, and a third man was seated, holding an artificial limb.
Last month, he added, when he participated with county staff in the regular walk-through of the Village to assess the level of maintenance, he saw families munching on doughnuts in the gazebo. (Shay is the liaison between the SKVA and the Siesta Key Village Maintenance Corp., which represents the property owners who pay for the Village upkeep handled by Buccaneer Landscape Management.)
On the morning of Aug. 2, Shay said, he would not expect to see any families in the gazebo because “two benches had a body on them. … I think that’s a problem. I’m not trying to be insensitive. We advertise this as a family-oriented destination.”
If homeless people regularly occupy the gazebo, Shay pointed out, “I think it’s going to hurt business.”
Earlier during the meeting, Paul Parr, who rents condominiums he owns in the Sunset Royale complex across from Siesta Public Beach, pointed to a related problem. He complained that homeless people have been sleeping in cars in the parking spaces parallel to Beach Road and the beach park’s picnic shelters.
“Are they camping out in the cars?” SKVA Vice President Mark Smith asked for clarification.
“Yeah,” Parr replied.
Sgt. Jason Mruczek of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, who heads up the Siesta Key substation, explained that the county has no law forbidding sleeping in cars. Still, he continued, Parr’s comments were the first he had heard of the Beach Road situation.
Parr added that he had asked his tenants to text him details when they saw people sleeping in the cars, so he can notify the Sheriff’s Office. “I understand the dilemma with the homeless,” Parr said. They need help, he added, “and they’re not getting much.”
After Shay brought up the situation at the gazebo, Parr also reported that one of his tenants had related to him an incident in which apparently homeless people had encouraged the 9- and 10-year-old daughters of visitors to join them at one of the beach park picnic shelters. That had alarmed the observer, Parr indicated.
Shay also noted that homeless people were reported to have been sleeping on picnic tables at Turtle Beach in early July — “[with] beer cans all over the place.” After residents notified the Sheriff’s Office, Shay said, those individuals no longer had been seen at the county park on the southern part of the Key.
Shay reminded the SKVA meeting attendees that Robert Marbut, the expert on homelessness the City and County of Sarasota hired in 2013 to provide recommendations for dealing with the local issues, offered a detailed list of suggestions; many of them have not been followed. One was not to provide handouts to the homeless, Shay pointed out.
The saga of Lance
Parr also brought up the fact that Siesta has had one prominent homeless person for years: the man known as Lance, who sits in a wheelchair most days on or near the sidewalk north of the Village.
When Lt. Debra Kaspar first was assigned to supervise the Siesta Key substation a couple of years ago, Shay continued, organizations on the island brought Lance’s situation to her attention. She requested that social workers assisting the Sheriff’s Office talk with Lance, Shay added, and those workers eventually found him a room to live in on the mainland. However, Shay noted, Lance reportedly told them, “‘I’m not moving; the people on Siesta Key are wonderful.’”
“I see people stopping and giving him food all the time,” Parr pointed out.
“At the end of the day, it’s his choice [about what to do],” Shay said of Lance. “[Law enforcement personnel and social workers] cannot force him [to move into housing].”
What can be done in the Village?
Esther Quiles, a guest at the SKVA meeting, told the group she bought pizza one day and took it to the gazebo, where she planned to eat it. Two homeless men were sitting on the benches when she arrived, she continued, but one left. The remaining person had a bag with beer bottles in it, she said, and he was asking people for money. When she offered to take him to the Circle K to buy him some food, she added, he declined, saying he did not want to walk that far.
Shay told the group that it was his understanding from Sheriff’s Office personnel that it is illegal for the homeless people to ask for money. Moreover, Shay pointed out, “By enabling them, we give them no reason to leave.”
Shay added that the best response if a homeless person asks someone for money is to call the Sheriff’s Office and request to meet with a deputy, but most people prefer not to do that.
Kay Kouvatsos, co-owner of Village Café, added that “if [homeless individuals] want to ‘dumpster dive,’ there’s 35 places here where they can get food.”
Shay then talked about one homeless man whose name, he has been told, is Jose. “He lives at the beach, which is not legal,” Shay noted. Starting about 4 a.m. most days, Shay continued, Jose rides his bicycle into the Village and starts going through all the garbage cans. Employees at the Circle K also give him food, Shay said.
One day, SKVA Vice President Smith told the group, homeless individuals at the gazebo called the Sheriff’s Office to ask that deputies run background checks on the Buccaneer Landscape Maintenance employees working in the Village, to make sure the crew members were in the country legally.
“Really?” Shay responded.
“[The complaint] came from a guy that was sleeping in the gazebo,” Smith replied.
Shay also related his experiences in the early morning hours of a couple of July days: He saw that homeless people in the gazebo had unplugged the lights on the structure, so Shay plugged them back in. “I go through around 5:15,” Shay said.
SKVA Treasurer Roz Hyman asked about posting signs in the gazebo that say, “No panhandling” and “Please don’t be an enabler.”
“I’m sure it won’t eliminate the problem,” she added. Still, she indicated, it might alleviate some of the issues if enough people realize that giving the homeless money and food is not the best response.
“We may need to investigate retrofitting the benches,” Smith said. If an armrest were inserted at the midpoint of each bench, he noted, no one could lie down in the gazebo.
Ann Frescura, executive director of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, told the group that that was one action the City of Springfield, Ill., took to discourage homeless individuals from camping out on city benches. (Springfield was her home before she took the Siesta Chamber position early this year.)