Leading Question

By Susan Burns November 30, 2010

The homeless are a red-hot issue among businesspeople who say they are seeing increased numbers congregating in visible, public locations in downtown Sarasota and Bradenton. They scare away prospective shoppers and diners, discourage new commercial tenants from signing leases and convince potential condo buyers to look elsewhere, according to the complaints.

Richard Martin, executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, which covers Sarasota and Manatee, knows all the fears and doesn’t want to brush off the concerns, even if, as he believes, they are often unfounded.

It’s difficult to accurately count the homeless, but the latest tally of people who have received services and/or consider themselves homeless in Sarasota-Manatee from Jan. 1 to Nov. 14, 2010, is 6,445—an increase over the last couple of years because of the recession and returning U.S. Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans, according to Martin. A percentage of these are the chronic homeless—on the streets for one year, or four times over the course of a year.

Solutions exist, but “they are gulp kind of solutions,” Martin says. The latest model: Housing First, which emphasizes putting the chronically homeless into permanent housing. For the most incorrigible, this is the only solution, since they tend to have physical, mental or/and or substance abuse problems and can never live independently. It comes at a cost to taxpayers, of course, many of whom are working day and night to keep a roof over their own heads. To provide clean shelter, food and healthcare to the chronically homeless—most of them unemployed—“seems unfair,” Martin admits, but it may cost less in the long-term (certainly less than jails or hospitals), and can reduce homelessness, “so it benefits the entire community.”

The homeless here are served by many entities, including the Bill Galvano One Stop Center in Bradenton, which does not provide housing but does provide food, clothing, healthcare, dental care, social services and job services. The Salvation Army on 10th Street in Sarasota provides many of these services in addition to emergency and transitional housing. 

For national models, Miami-Dade’s Community Partnership for Homeless is one of the most effective. Started in 1995, it provides one-stop temporary care for the homeless—housing, education, healthcare, job counseling and one-on-one case management—that has reduced the homeless population in Miami-Dade 91 percent in 15 years, from 8,000 to 759. It was funded after voters there passed a tax on restaurants with liquor licenses that make more than $400,000 in annual revenues.

Pinellas Hope in Clearwater is another model. This 10-acre site donated by the Diocese of St. Petersburg, for a maximum of 250 adults, is a tent city—“another gulp,” says Martin—who adds it’s nonetheless “a remarkable model in our back yard.” A partnership of government, nonprofits and business, Pinellas Hope provides temporary shelter in small tents and wooden sheds, food, social services and job counseling and has served 2,300 people with a 55 percent success rate. Pinellas Hope receives public funding from sources including Pinellas County government and the City of St. Petersburg.

Martin says every community needs a custom solution, but a common denominator in the Miami and Pinellas examples has been that community and business leaders have stepped forward. The community has a chance to weigh in on this issue at the “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness Community Meeting,” on Saturday, Feb. 5, at Church of the Redeemer Parish Hall. RSVPs not required. For more information, e-mail [email protected] 

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