Suncoast Partnership finally gets county funding to help pay for operation of database used to track services to the homeless

Commissioners Moran and Rainford oppose Chair Cutsinger’s motion

This is an image from the homepage of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

Almost exactly three months after the Sarasota County commissioners first awarded grants to human services providers for programs in the 2024 fiscal year, the board members voted 3-2 on Dec. 12 to give $176,000 to the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness so it can continue managing a database that tracks services to homeless individuals in the county.

The amount was almost 22% less than the $225,000 that a county advisory council had recommended. The Partnership originally requested $250,000.

Commissioners Michael Moran and Neil Rainford cast the “No” votes.

On a number of occasions since the commission’s initial Sept. 12 vote on the annual grants to nonprofit organizations, Kevin Stiff, the new CEO of the Partnership, has appeared before the board members to try to convince them of the importance of the funding for what is called the Community Services Information System (CSIS).

As the Partnership explains on its website, that system “is an electronic database used to accumulate  information on the characteristics of those at risk of homelessness or already homeless, tracking service delivery by continuum members.

“The program was developed in the 1990s in response to a mandate by Congress requiring the collection of such data in order to qualify for funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” the nonprofit’s website continues. “With enhancements over the past few years, providers are now able to refer clients to comprehensive housing projects, use effective case management tools and document outcomes through this system. Not only are we able to track participants who are participants in projects funded by federal and state grants, CSIS is able to track all services provided for those who are homeless, including Emergency Housing, Permanent Supportive Housing, Rapid Rehousing, Transitional Housing, VASH vouchers, Homeless Prevention and Supportive Services.”

On Sept. 12, Commissioner Moran — who championed a reorganization of how the county provides funding support for behavioral health and other human services programs — did not include in his list of awards the $225,000 that the Partnership was seeking for the CSIS for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1.

Commissioner Michael Moran makes a point during the Dec. 12 discussion. News Leader image

To receive funding, Moran explained — based on previous discussions with his colleagues — an organization’s application had to, in his opinion, deal with providing food, shelter, safety, substance abuse treatment or keeping people charged with minor offenses out of the jail.

In an email to the commissioners in response to the Sept. 12 decisions, former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, expressed dismay over the fact that the CSIS funding was not approved. The Sarasota City and County commissions accepted a number of recommendations by the Florida Housing Coalition in 2017, including the establishment of the coordinated entry system, as means of helping more people transition from life on the streets to permanent housing.

Thaxton emphasized in his email, “This CSIS system is a requirement from HUD in order for the County to receive federal homeless funding.” He added, “So not only will Sarasota’s homeless children, families and veterans lose the many benefits of having a coordinated system of care, they could also lose millions (I stopped counting at five million) of dollars in federal and state funding that requires a Continuum of Care to have a CSIS system in place. Additionally, this defunding undermines the partnership with the City of Sarasota to mutually fund a coordinated system of support for the unhoused persons in both the City and unincorporated areas of the County,” Thaxton pointed out.

More funding awarded on Sept. 26, but nothing approved for Partnership

In the wake of public outcry over the commission’s decision not to fund a number of organizations that had won support in the past, commission Chair Ron Cutsinger raised concerns during the board’s Sept. 26 meeting about errors in scoring the applications for the county money. He was referring to the analysis of those materials by the two county advisory councils charged with that endeavor, which then provided the scores to the commissioners.

Yet, while the board members did approve further awards on Sept. 26, the Partnership still did not receive the $225,000 it was seeking.

When Commissioner Mark Smith advocated for the grant support, Commissioner Moran responded that Item No, 16 on the Consent Agenda of routine business matters for the meeting that day might change Smith’s mind.

That item — which Moran pulled for discussion when the board members later turned their attention to the Consent Agenda — included a county staff recommendation for approval of a subrecipient agreement between the Sarasota Office of Housing and Community Development (OHCD) and the Partnership in the amount of $114,000 for the CSIS.

Matt Osterhoudt, director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, explained that the entire Item No. 16 dealt with federal CARES Act funding, which the federal government provided during the COVID-19 pandemic. The OHCD was the manager of the grants, Osterhoudt added, in accord with an interlocal agreement between Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

This information about the Sarasota Office of Housing and Community Development is provided on the City of Sarasota website.

Essentially, Osterhoudt explained, the OHCD wanted county approval to divert funding that was to have been dedicated to what is called “rapid rehousing” — getting homeless individuals into dwellings as soon as possible — to the Partnership for the CSIS, instead.

The high expense of housing in Sarasota County had thwarted the OHCD’s rapid rehousing plans, documents in the agenda packet pointed out.

Moran summed up the situation thus: “The intent of this money — the intent” was to use funding awarded through the CARES Act “to get people rapidly, rapidly, rapidly off the streets” to try to protect them from COVID-19.

Yet, because all of the money was not used for that purpose, Osterhoudt indicated, the OHCD wanted to provide it to the Partnership for the CSIS.

“It’s being asked of this board,” Moran stressed, “to keep this complete dysfunction going.”

Following further discussion with Osterhoudt, Moran said, “I’m not moving any of these [requests in Item No. 16] forward under any condition. … I think this is a perfect example of a massive ‘oopsie’ to the tune of millions of dollars to the taxpayer.”

Ultimately, none of the commissioners offered a motion to approve Item No. 16.

The Dec. 12 discussion

During the Open to the Public comment period at the start of the commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 12, Partnership CEO Stiff once more appeared at the podium to try to underscore the importance of the CSIS.

Kevin Stiff addresses the commissioners on Dec. 12. News Leader image

He read from a news article published by the KOLO 8 TV news team in Reno, Nevada, that he had emailed the commissioners on Dec. 11.

Written by Taylor Burke, the article began, “Washoe County has become the second county in the nation to reach a milestone in solving homelessness using data. Now, they can see exactly what strategies are driving numbers down.”

The article continued, “Adam Ruege, the Director of Strategy with a nonprofit called Community Solutions, explains that Washoe County is on track to what he calls Functional Zero. Community solutions has certified Reno for reaching quality, by-name data for all adults in the community, and has reduced homelessness by 28%. By reaching this milestone, Reno is building a future that ensures homelessness is a rare and brief experience, and never an enduring or recurring way of life.

“ ‘If a community has ten individuals experiencing homelessness, and that community has the ability to house all ten, that community would achieve what we call Functional Zero,’ ” Ruege said.

“Using a database system, Washoe County has been able to identify what the main drivers of homelessness are.”

That database, Stiff told the commissioners, is CSIS.

The article then quoted Ruege: “You’re never going to solve a problem unless you have a good sense of the scope and scale of that problem.”

“Equipped with this data,” the article continued, “communities can understand where to direct their attention and implement strategies that are as dynamic as the problem. They can also understand whether those strategies are driving numbers down, and if not, whether they need to pivot. By knowing the names of every person experiencing homelessness and their specific situation, Washoe County can quickly match resources to individuals based on their needs and monitor whether their efforts are actually reducing homelessness. This ‘By Name’ list is a comprehensive data source of every person in a community experiencing homelessness, updated in real time. Each person on the list has a file that includes their name, homeless history, health, and housing needs.”

Along with Stiff that morning, three speakers associated with Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity (SURE) urged the commissioners to approve the $225,000 for the CSIS. One of them, Dorothy Murphy, stressed that that would make it possible for the Partnership to receive $2 million in federal funding to support the system.

A second SURE representative, Mackenzie Grimes, pointed out that the CSIS is “largely responsible for the double-digit decline in the Sarasota County unhoused population the last four years.”

Chair Cutsinger brought up the funding during his report to his colleagues that day, emphasizing that, in spite of comments to the contrary that have circulated in the community, “We did not deny funding to [the Partnership for the CSIS].” The commissioners merely had postponed the discussion of it, he added.

As he did on Sept. 26, Cutsinger again described the advisory councils’ scoring of the applications for county funding for behavioral health and human services support as flawed. He further noted that, in the aftermath of the Sept. 12 vote, he had gone back over the county’s Human Services Advisory Council (HSAC) recommendations for awards, including the Partnership’s application for the CSIS funding. “This was one of the highest scoring programs of all of them,” Cutsinger pointed out.

The HSAC had ranked the application 18 out of 51.

This is part of the Human Services Advisory Council ranking of applications for funding, provided to the County Commission in advance of the Sept. 12 meeting. The CSIS funding is at the bottom of this list. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is the scoring sheet that Commissioner Moran used on Sept. 12 to recommend the programs that the county should fund for the 2024 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In fact, Cutsinger said, based on his review, the application not only would have qualified for approval, based on the point system that Moran used for his Sept. 12 recommendations, but also for the bonus that Moran called for when organizations achieved a certain score or higher.

Nonetheless, Cutsinger continued, he had found that the county had only $176,000 remaining for use in HSAC grants. He did say that he understood that the Partnership had received some help from other entities to help pay for the system, and perhaps Partnership leaders could obtain more money from one or more of the foundations in the community.

Cutsinger then made a motion to allocate the $176,000 to the Partnership for the CSIS, and Commissioner Smith seconded it.

Not only had individuals testified in past weeks to the importance of the CSIS, Cutsinger said, but Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman also had sent the commissioners a letter, encouraging them to approve the funding because of the importance of the CSIS to the Sheriff’s Office’s Homeless Outreach Team.

Commissioner Smith added, “I’m very much in favor of the program we have here.” He noted that both Gov. Ron DeSantis and first lady Casey DeSantis had advocated for programs to help the homeless in the state, so the county award of the money to the Partnership would be in alignment with their efforts.

Moran told Cutsinger that he was “glad you brought it up” that day. Nonetheless, he said, he would not support the grant, to remain consistent with his earlier votes.

Moran also pointed out that the advisory councils are charged with making funding recommendations, but “at the end of the day, we have the power and authority to do what we want.”

He further stressed, “My beef from the very beginning was getting the power brokers out of this [grant process], getting people that are trying to pressure the system and steer things in a certain way …” With the new processes in place for awarding the annual funding, Moran continued, the only deviations from the advisory council recommendations have to come from the commission dais. (See the related article in this issue.)

Commissioner Joe Neunder also talked about the value of the CSIS. However, he cautioned, “Next year, this application process is a very competitive process.” No nonprofit organization, he emphasized, should build its budget on the basis of its expectation that it would receive county human services money, even if the organization has received grants in the past.

Commissioner Rainford did not comment before he cast his “No” vote.