‘Transient coordinator’ post revived to deal with downtown vagrancy

Homeless people regularly are seen sitting on the sidewalks by Five Points Park in downtown Sarasota. The City Commission ordered benches removed from the park to try to cut down on loitering by the homeless. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Perhaps the best spot in town to watch the audacity of the vagrant population is outside the Sarasota city manager’s office. A large glass wall with a door overlooks a fountain and picnic table.

The fountain can serve as a laundry, and the picnic bench is a good place to take a nap. City staffers have seen it all.

Earlier this month, Interim City Manager Terry Lewis rousted a sleeping man on the bench outside his office at mid-morning. “The guy appeared pretty drunk,” said Lewis. “We talked for a while, and I asked him why he didn’t get a job. I told him about our Street Teams, and he said that sounded beneath him.”

The Street Teams are a joint venture with the Salvation Army in Sarasota. Homeless people work in teams to clean up the downtown area and neighborhoods in return for room and board at the Salvation Army. The goal of the teams is to help homeless people find full-time employment.

City staffers, including the police, are starting to draw a distinction between homelessness and vagrancy. “Vagrancy is voluntary,” said Lewis. “Homelessness is not.”

For weeks now, downtowners have complained of increasingly aggressive behavior in and around Five Points Park and the Selby Public Library.

Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, who lives downtown, told his fellow commissioners during their Aug. 21 meeting that he had heard renewed complaints of vagrants using the library’s restrooms to bathe, leading to quickly emptied paper-towel holders and disarray of the facilities. Barbetta asked County Administrator Randall Reid to check with library staff about the situation and determine how best to deal with it.

Two weeks ago, Lewis instructed each of his police captains to patrol downtown personally once a week and write him a report on their findings.

“We have more vagrants, and they appear to be younger,” Lewis said. “It’s a different demographic.”

Lewis indicated an organizational change: “They’re in clans or groups with leaders.”

The new vagrancy pattern is starting to impact behavior. “People are selling their downtown condos and moving away,” goes one anecdote. “Volunteers won’t work at the Selby Library anymore,” is another anecdote. “Tampa is busing them down here before the [Republican National] convention,” is a third. “Whole Foods can’t get tenants because of the homeless,” is a fourth.

Whether supported by facts or not, the perception that downtown vagrancy and homelessness are growing – and the people are becoming more aggressive – is expanding. The most telling comment came from the mouth of Mayor Suzanne Atwell Monday night, Aug. 20, during the regular City Commission meeting. “I’m not comfortable going downtown anymore,” she said — and then repeated it for television.

The city had a hiccup months ago in enforcing its trespass law. That law was found to skip troublesome due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution. The problem has been fixed, and the city’s trespass ordinance is back in force, with due process built-in.

Are Tampa and St. Petersburg busing vagrants south to Sarasota? “St. Pete denies it,” said City Commissioner Terry Turner. “But I suspect Tampa has gotten hard-nosed on the homeless.”

The idea of moving vagrants to the next community is an old one. Sarasota Police Officer Ford Snodgrass recalls, “We used to give transients bus tickets to anywhere they wanted to go when we had a bus station downtown.”

One of Snodgrass’ responsibilities is the homeless … along with six other jobs. It used to be the full-time job of one officer to spend time on the streets with the homeless and vagrants, keeping track of their comings and goings with a computer database. Because of funding cutbacks, it’s now one-sixth of Snodgrass’ job. Yet, “I don’t have time to track them,” he said.

After the captains’ two weeks on patrol, they decided the Police Department should bring back that former staffing position. Capt. Wade McVeigh told the City Commission Monday, “We’re going to create a transient coordinator for downtown for 90 days. And we will readjust the cameras around the library. And we want to talk to the city attorney about transients’ property left behind.”

Downtowners have expressed concern about a proliferation of suitcases, backpacks and other carriers that are dropped off in the mornings and apparently reclaimed in the evenings. With today’s headlines recounting suspicious parcels that explode, public safety issues have been raised.

“We can’t allow suitcases and backpacks on the side of the road,” said City Commissioner Shannon Snyder.

Turner said if the reinstated homeless coordinator position proves successful, “I promise it will be extended.”

Every two years, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness conducts a survey. It consistently has found the majority of the area’s homeless have ties to the community. Whether the newest members have similar ties is probably a job for the new transient coordinator to determine. If so, they represent the next generation of Sarasota’s homeless population.