Inside Sarasota's Growing Homeless Problem
On a drizzly Monday afternoon last fall, roughly two dozen homeless people are camped on the sidewalk on the west side of Central Avenue in the Rosemary District, one block south of the Salvation Army shelter, which will soon open its doors for its free evening meal. The homeless have lined this block for months, rain or shine, day and night, one man always in a wheelchair, many others on folding chairs, all surrounded by backpacks and garbage bags full of possessions. Today, a heavyset woman missing a number of teeth is sitting on the curb, her bare legs splayed into the street. She’s hollering obscenities at no one, arguing with people who aren’t there.
This one-block stretch of Central has become ground zero for homeless adults in Sarasota since city crackdowns in the past year largely chased them from the Main Street retail district and other areas. There are certainly fewer businesses or tourists in the Rosemary District to be affected by their presence, and that’s put the problem on the doorstep of people like Jon Sheintal, owner of the Rosemary Court yoga and wellness center. A collection of four buildings located around a quiet central garden, Rosemary Court sits directly across the street from the shouting woman. Every f-bomb she yells can be heard clearly in the garden.
“All day, all night, fights, drugs nonstop,” says Sheintal, who purchased and restored the property 17 years ago. “They’re squeezed here by the more well-to-do areas of Sarasota. The city doesn’t care about the Rosemary District.”
Two of his four buildings are now vacant; his longtime tenants began ending their leases with him in the past three months. One of them, Harmony Miller, midwife and owner of the Rosemary Birthing Home, has found another location for her business just earlier today. Her birthing center has been at Rosemary Court for more than 10 years.
“This year, seemingly overnight, people were living across the street,” Miller says. “It’s ridiculous; they have furniture. I’ve seen people having sex under blankets. People are coming here to be in a space of relaxation, to open up, to give birth. If you’re pulling in at 2 a.m. and wondering if you can get out of your car, that doesn’t feel safe.”
Like warm-weather American cities many times its size, Sarasota has a serious and growing homeless problem. The homeless include families with children—many of them victims of the economy, who often find temporary shelter with relatives and are largely invisible to the public—and chronically homeless adults, who make up the highly visible street homeless. In all, roughly 1,700 individuals are homeless in Sarasota County, more than twice the national average for a population of our size. The percentage of homeless people in the city of Sarasota is estimated to be as high as six times the national average, with 250 to 400 chronically homeless men and women on its streets at any given time.
In the last year and a half, Sarasota spent tens of thousands of dollars—and earmarked hundreds of thousands more—agreeing to and then rejecting a solution that offered promise for reducing the city’s street homeless and helping them get the services they need. It’s a story of civic infighting, selfish interests, broken promises and a collapse of political will that has left poisonous finger-pointing in its wake—and hundreds of homeless people still occupying the city’s streets.
According to longtime city law enforcement officials, Sarasota has always had a few chronic homeless. But the numbers spiked with the opening of the 220-bed “Center of Hope” Salvation Army shelter on 10th Street in 2003. Faced with a burgeoning street homeless population, the city began enforcing a “no-camping-without-permission” ordinance, which opponents criticized as an attempt to drive the homeless from the area. Embarrassing headlines soon followed.
In 2006, the National Coalition for the Homeless memorably named Sarasota “America’s Meanest City” for its ordinances. In 2011, the national media reported on the city’s decision to remove the benches from downtown’s Five Points Park rather than allow the homeless to sit on them. In 2012, the story of a homeless man’s arrest for “theft of utilities” for charging his cell phone in Gillespie Park went viral. Not long after, police emails surfaced suggesting a law enforcement culture of “bum hunting,” followed by a video of an officer slamming a homeless man into a railing. Stung by lawsuits brought by the ACLU and relentlessly hounded by the downtown merchants to get the homeless off their stoops, local government last year called in an outsider for help.
That help came in the form of Dr. Robert Marbut, a nationally recognized expert on homelessness and point person on a number of major shelter projects, most notably the $125 million multipurpose Haven for Hope campus in San Antonio, Texas, as well the $1.8 million Pinellas Safe Harbor in Clearwater, both of which have been cited by officials in those cities as having dramatically reduced street homelessness.
“[St. Petersburg] used to do a demographic count of the homeless downtown around City Hall,” says Zach Haisch, administrative sergeant and program coordinator of Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter. “They don’t even have to do that count anymore. [Pinellas Safe Harbor] has absolutely been a success.” Marbut’s shelters have also been credited with reducing by the hundreds homeless jail populations, long a drain on taxpayers, through diversion programs. In St. Petersburg, officials estimate it costs more than $100 to keep a homeless individual in jail overnight for petty ordinance offenses; the cost of feeding and housing an individual per day at Pinellas Safe Harbor is $13.
“[Pinellas Safe Harbor’s jail diversion program] has given an opportunity to the homeless. We transport them [to the shelter] for free, assign them a case manager, they do community service and their [petty ordinance cases] are dismissed,” says Ekaterini Gerakios-Siren, Clearwater’s community development manager. “We saw a big reduction in homeless when it first opened [in 2011] and the numbers have been very stable since. It’s been a success not just for Clearwater, but Pinellas County as a whole.”
First brought to Sarasota by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Herald-Tribune in July 2013, as keynote speaker at a summit on homelessness held at New College, Marbut found an audience ready to listen. From the city and county commissions to social services to law enforcement to the court and jail systems to the many nonprofit organizations working individually to address the issue, nearly everyone who heard Marbut jumped onboard with his message. Marbut stresses that mental health, substance abuse and job readiness services should be brought directly to the homeless; communities should focus on addressing causes rather than relying solely on ordinance policing and arrests.
“Marbut came here, that first night he was like a rock star,” says city commissioner Suzanne Atwell. “I certainly was for it.”
“It was the city who suggested an outside expert,” recalls outgoing county commissioner Joseph Barbetta. “We looked at Marbut’s background and resume and we both [city and county commissions] voted unanimously 5-0 to hire him.”
Shortly after Marbut’s address at New College, the city and county commissions jointly engaged him on a four-month, $40,000 contract—since extended—agreeing to split his consulting fee and together earmarking $1 million to see whatever plan he proposed to solve Sarasota’s homeless problem brought to fruition.
Marbut was scheduled to release his recommendations to the city and county commissions on Nov. 25, 2013. But the city soon became aware that one of the recommendations Marbut would be making would be for a “come-as-you-are” homeless shelter to be located near health and social services and the jail downtown. (Five to 10 percent of Sarasota’s adult homeless are in jail at any given time; although less than half of 1 percent of the general population, the homeless accounted for 16 percent of Sarasota arrests between 2004 and 2010.) Described by him as an “emergency triage” center and based on the shelters he’d previously opened in San Antonio and Clearwater, the shelter would serve 250 adults at an annual cost of $1.2 million; would be operated by law enforcement; offer a 24/7-365 emergency refuge; and have mental health and other professionals on hand to help guide residents through a program aimed at developing self-sufficiency and a permanent housing solution, working in conjunction with other agencies.
The “come-as-you-are” shelter concept—derided by critics as a “wet shelter”—is different from currently available Sarasota shelters in that while it does not allow drugs or alcohol on premises, it does offer beds to those under the influence (addiction is estimated to affect from a quarter to half of the street homeless population). These individuals are often placed on a banned list at faith-based shelters such as the Salvation Army; at the Pinellas Safe Harbor, they are housed in a special area known as “Pod 6” and assigned caseworkers.
“The Salvation Army has tough restrictions,” Marbut explains. “They take the ‘happy’ homeless, the easier people. If you want real relief in the streets, you take people as they are, not as you want them to be.”
Even including nonprofit and faith-based organizations, Sarasota County currently has a total unmet need of more than 1,000 shelter beds, according to Marbut, and does not offer no-cost, 24/7 adult homeless services. The Salvation Army’s shelter primarily serves those enrolled in its recovery programs, runs well over capacity, charges $7 per night, and turns people out during daytime hours. A patchwork of nonprofit organizations, including the Resurrection House on Kumquat Court, attempts to fill the gap by providing some daytime services including showers and laundry; still, many of the city’s homeless pass their time in Selby Library, city parks and other public spaces, illegally sleeping where they can at night.
Early last year, a fight between two homeless men led to a stabbing in the Selby Library; in 2012, one homeless man decapitated another in a Sarasota camp. Last June, a downtown merchant and homeless man got into a fight, which sent them crashing through the store’s front window, injuring both.
Valerie Guillory, president of the homeless outreach nonprofit Trinity Without Borders, says she knows of rapes and other violence that occurs in the illegal homeless camps [see “Camp Homeless,” page 114] the city tolerates away from the public eye. “I kept going to the city,” Guillory said of a particular camp last year. “‘Listen, this is crazy. Why are you allowing them to camp with no porta-potties? At least allow garbage services and porta-potties.’”
Having agreed with the county to follow through on Marbut’s recommendations, the city commission faced immediate blowback just on the rumor of a downtown shelter. “[Upset constituents] were in my office, you bet,” recalls city commissioner Atwell.
At the Oct. 7, 2013, city commission meeting, six weeks before Marbut released his report, Mayor Willie Shaw let it be known that as far as any shelter went, it would not be happening in his District 1,
home to lower-income neighborhoods such as Newtown and Gillespie Park, and already the location of the Salvation Army shelter, as well as several illegal camps.
Shaw told the city commission, “Definitely by no means should any facility be placed in North Sarasota’s District 1. We should not have the concentration of poverty in one area. Enough is enough. That’s the way it’s going to be.”
Supporting him were many members of his district, including the Pines of Sarasota’s human resources director Dawn Crable, who warned, “We’ve already had residents’ family members express concerns about the safety of our [assisted living facility] campus. We look forward to an eventual expansion; any [shelter] would no doubt compromise that.”
Others pointed out that previous Marbut shelters, including Pinellas Safe Harbor, are not located in urban centers or neighborhoods. (Pinellas Safe Harbor is located in an industrial zone near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport; though not in an urban center or neighborhood, it is on a bus line 20 minutes from downtown St. Petersburg and directly beside the Pinellas County Justice Center. On a recent weekday morning, a reporter could see some residents waiting at the nearby bus stop; no one was loitering outside. The entrance includes metal detectors, visible police presence and staffed check-in area.)
Vice mayor Susan Chapman also opposed a shelter.
“Why should we be responsible [for a shelter]? Mental health used to be a state issue, why is it now a local issue? Public health used to be a county issue. Why is it now a city issue?” she told the commission. “Why should we as a city—because we have been kind, generous and responsible—be burdened with providing services for the region’s chronic homeless?”
Most of Marbut’s 11 other recommendations have since seen remarkable progress, especially those addressing homeless families. An “Emergency Intake Portal” for families with children in North County, the Harvest Family Haven, opened its doors on Oct. 1, filled with six families in two days, and placed others in motels. A similar South County shelter, the Catholic Charities Family Haven, is scheduled to open early in 2015. Newly installed case management systems have unified the many organizations tackling the issue, and All Faiths Food Bank led the first “Campaign Against Summer Hunger,” raising $1.2 million and collecting more than 750,000 pounds of food. Sarasota County’s Gulf Coast Community Foundation received a prestigious national recognition from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for its role in that campaign.
“It’s a tale of two cities,” Marbut says. “Sarasota is going to be the singular example of national best practices for homeless families and children. But it is also the best place to come and see how not to handle single homeless adults.”
But the shelter issue—Marbut’s main strategy for addressing the highly visible street homeless—quickly went from contentious to toxic. Marbut proposed four final sites, all near downtown and within walking distance of services.
Two were quickly deemed unavailable because of ownership issues; two others stalled out, with the city claiming they presented a variety of cost, location and environmental problems.
Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s director of homeless services—a centralized “homeless czar” position created by the county to fulfill one of Marbut’s recommendations—grew frustrated dealing with the city on the shelter.
“Myself, Dr. Marbut, the county, we had weekly meetings with the city and we presented no less than 80 sites both in and out of the county to [city manager] Tom Barwin,” he says. “There was never an acceptance of any one and they never said, ‘Put it here,’ either.”
“The site selection effort was deeply flawed,” rebuts Barwin. “Dr. Marbut didn’t just recommend a shelter and leave it up to the community to [decide the location]. He recommended sites all near an existing shelter [the Salvation Army]. We went through due diligence; [the sites] were small, contaminated and expensive. One site was sold, another site [had a price tag of $9.2 million]. The cost far exceeded what anybody had estimated. It was 900 percent above what was budgeted and there was no clear funding source.”
Marbut doesn’t believe the city acted in good faith. “The only site I was ever officially given to look at by the city was in another county, up in Manatee,” he says. “The absurdity of that logic, I don’t even know how to respond. When you get down to it, there are three people holding up the shelter, the city manager [Barwin] and two city commissioners [Shaw and Chapman]. The first site [1121 Lewis Ave.] had a great buffer zone in a light industrial area. Another site [Harvest House on Lime Avenue] became available, the size is perfect, the kitchen is perfect; the city voted it down even before they heard the presentation. It tells me they knew it would be so logical, they didn’t even want to hear it. Every site, something happened. Every single site. It’s NIMBYism [“Not In My Back Yard”]. In fairness to Shaw, he did vote for two sites outside his district; he didn’t vote against everything like [Chapman] did. But Shaw says it best: ‘Not in my district.’”
Opposition to a shelter within the city continued to grow. As reported by the Herald-Tribune, Lt. Ken Stiff of the Sarasota Police Department—who had accompanied Marbut on a tour of homeless services in San Antonio, Phoenix and other major cities—felt that large homeless shelters attracted homeless populations, which would necessitate additional policing, a popular point among shelter opponents—although according to Marbut, that has not been the case in San Antonio or Clearwater. (Stiff was unavailable for comment for this story.)
The Salvation Army, while not directly opposing a shelter, argued for a strategy of affordable housing. “If you only discuss one step,” says the Salvation Army’s Major Ethan Frizzell, “that doesn’t work. We recognize that additional beds are necessary; unfortunately, shelters are getting built instead of affordable housing units.”
In July, the city commission voted to table the homeless shelter discussion. “The commission voted 3-2 to stop looking [for potential homeless shelter sites] and that ended it,” says commissioner Atwell of the vote, which saw Shaw and Chapman joined by commissioner Shannon Snyder, who had suddenly changed his mind on the issue.
Snyder would soon resign from the city commission to run for the open county commission seat being vacated, because of term limits, by the pro-shelter Barbetta. Snyder’s “Elect Shannon Snyder” campaign website states, “A ‘come as you are shelter’ will NOT solve the problem. I believe a better alternative is to establish a program that addresses the mental health and substance abuse of our homeless.” His statement does not include any details or suggestions about such a program. In the August Republican primary, Snyder was defeated by former city commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who staunchly supported the shelter and had received Barbetta’s endorsement. Caragiulo went on to win Barbetta’s seat.
“I refer to it as ‘that thing we were talking about’ because the shelter pisses everybody off,” says Caragiulo. “I would prefer we subscribe to all Marbut’s recommendations or none at all; I’m sorry that the politics of NIMBYism did [the shelter] in.”
At the same July 21, 2014, city commission meeting where the Marbut shelter met its demise, the Salvation Army announced it planned to ask the city for $395,000 to expand its services, including 24 additional shelter beds. This added fuel to the fire for those who believed that the Salvation Army was indifferent to the concerns of its neighbors in the Rosemary District and had seen Marbut’s shelter as competing with its own plans for expansion.
“I don’t get along with the Salvation Army; they have no regard for the neighbors,” says Rosemary Court owner Sheintal. “Every couple of years they get a new major, and the major doesn’t respond to the neighborhood—the major responds to the Salvation Army. They disown the loiterers even though they go in there to eat. The Salvation Army appears to be independent of any concerns in Sarasota.”
“We never objected to the shelter; we promoted a full community conversation,” says the Salvation Army’s Major Frizzell. He points out that the Salvation Army provides as many as 24,000 meals to the homeless in just a single month and offers a variety of programs to help the homeless, but it needs additional resources to do more. “That’s why we asked for the [money],” he says.
(At a budget meeting three days later, Shaw and Chapman indicated they would be against any Salvation Army shelter expansion.)
“The [shelter] issue got divisive and personal. NIMBYism was at its height, and Dr. Marbut predicted that,” says Atwell. “Our commission did not have the political will.”
For now, a homeless shelter in Sarasota is dead. But the homeless problem remains.
“Good luck, city,” says outgoing county commissioner Barbetta. “I think their thinking is, they have the jail: ‘We’re just going to put them in jail.’ Willie Shaw should have looked at it like we were trying to help his community, not hurt his community. The homeless are already there.”
Shaw counters that the shelter would have brought even more homeless people to his district. “We would have become the central location for the hard-core homeless from North Port to Sarasota,” he says. “That is not a progressive move for an area that already has the highest unemployment and crime rates in the county.”
“Mayor Shaw does not understand the realities on the street,” responds Marbut. “The fact is almost all the street-level homeless—chronic individuals—reside in the city of Sarasota now.”
Data collected by five separate agencies, including the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and the Sarasota County Fire Department, point to as much as 78 percent of the chronic adult homeless being in the city. Yet at one point during the site selection process, city manager Barwin argued that because the shelter would be “a countywide systems asset,” it should be funded 100 percent by the county. The city ultimately earmarked $289,000 toward building the shelter, about a fifth or less of the total startup cost, which varied by site, with the rest of the cost to fall on the county.
Barwin now says that greater issues than the cost were at work in keeping a shelter out of the city.
“The mayor was trying to make an important point [when he objected to a Marbut shelter in District 1]. There has been a tremendous sense of initiative and pride [in District 1] in the past few years; crime is down, there’s a conversation on how to restore [Martin Luther King Jr. Way] as a diverse economic main street. The community was just saying—as any neighborhood would—‘Let’s not put too many burdens on our community,’” he says.
Vice mayor Chapman suggested, via email, that Housing First, an initiative used in other cities to move the homeless directly from the streets into their own apartments, would work better than a shelter. She also maintained that Marbut’s strategies have not worked in other cities.
“After $500 million in San Antonio, the numbers are the same as before the shelter was created,” she writes. “The data for Pinellas Safe Harbor are similar. Marbut disputed the data, but we were able to show that despite $1.6 million per year in cost, very few [homeless individuals] actually completed [his] program.”
Cliff Smith, manager of homeless services for St. Petersburg, disputes Chapman’s assertion. “[Pinellas Safe Harbor] has been very cost effective, it’s saved a lot of money for the sheriff,” he says. “A lot have graduated [the shelter programs]. We had over 100 people sleeping in front of our City Hall; within a couple weeks [of the shelter opening] they were gone. Arrests are down, complaints from businesses are down. I don’t know how you put a figure on that, but it’s significant.” Other Pinellas officials estimate the shelter has saved the county $2.9 million by precluding a jail expansion.
Marbut says of Chapman, “She’s phenomenally misusing the data. She has no idea what she’s looking at. Street homelessness in Pinellas is down 91 percent. An 85 percent [decrease] was posted for San Antonio last year.”
Of her Housing First suggestion he says, “I like Housing First—about a fourth of our people in San Antonio are in our Housing First program. But Housing First is very expensive in a community that doesn’t have housing vacancies. It would cost 20 times more to provide housing for 250 people in Sarasota than to build the shelter—and you still have NIMBYism—where are you going to put it? [Housing First initiatives often involve buying apartment complexes and converting them to housing for the homeless, which can generate opposition from neighbors.] She’s never even made a motion to pick a Housing First site, let alone organized a plan. I don’t think she’s sincere.”
The county’s homeless czar, Wayne Applebee, also doubts that Housing First would work in Sarasota, where home values and occupancy rates are high. “The housing stock is not available here. There is no market incentive for affordable housing,” he says. “Marbut’s solution is what we can afford.”
“What sharp elbows Robert Marbut has!” Chapman writes in her email. “The city is actually placing homeless individuals with existing Housing First programs.” (Since April, the city has placed 35 veterans in housing through its Homeless Outreach Team, in part because the federal Veterans Administration increased housing vouchers for veterans earlier this year and local nonprofits, including the Suncoast Partnership and Jewish Family and Children’s Services, have made housing for veterans a priority.) “Certainly, this is to the detriment of Marbut’s continuing receiving city funds,” she writes.
Marbut is incensed by the insinuation that he’s recommending a shelter for his personal profit. “If Susan Chapman and Willie Shaw will vote for one of the locations in the city,” he says heatedly, “if that’s what it took, I promise to help them open it pro bono. The numbers are only going to continue to rise, and it’s going to become more violent.”
Among city and county administrators, business owners, social workers, clergy, volunteers, residents and others interviewed for this article, the same points emerge.
For those opposed to a shelter in the city, the homeless on our streets are primarily people “who do not come from here” and are alcoholics and drug addicts who do not want to be helped. They say that we already have a shelter in the Salvation Army, and that homelessness is not just a city problem, but a countywide issue. Therefore, a shelter would be better located somewhere out in the county. After all, city manager Barwin says, out in the county, “[the homeless] could have a little space and fresh air.”
Those who support a shelter in the city argue that though a small percentage of the homeless might be hard cases who don’t want help, the majority would leave the streets if given the resources. They say government has a civic responsibility to address the problem, and that a shelter in the county at the end of a long bus ride and far from services won’t be used. As far as the homeless not coming from here? “Even if they’re not from here,” says pastor Jim Minor of The Harvest church and Free Indeed Food Bank, which distributes food at its location on Lime Avenue on Thursdays, “they’re from the human race, aren’t they?”
“The [failure] of the shelter was the big disappointment,” the Rosemary District’s Sheintal says. “I knew when [the city commission] announced the price had gone from $1 million to $9 million, they’d pumped up the price somehow. That was the end of the story. They cherry-picked [Marbut’s] suggestions, took the easy ones and left the hard one. The city dumps the whole responsibility on the police when it’s a lot more than a police matter. It’s a social matter.”
Law enforcement agrees. While ordinances the homeless often break, such as anti-trespassing and anti-panhandling, should be enforced, officials say, they add that such arrests do little to address the root causes of the problem. They say mental illness affects upwards of half or more of the homeless population, with substance abuse often “co-occurring.”
“Most have had a life-changing experience, a death of a child or a failed marriage, and before long they got into substance abuse or a mental illness,” says Bill Spitler, director of research and planning at the sheriff’s office and a 35-year veteran of both city and county law enforcement. “Some have had a mental illness their whole lives and a caretaker has died on them [and they end up on the streets]. It’s hot, it’s raining, you sleep in the woods? You worry about getting robbed, getting attacked? What kind of quality of life is that? You’re going to drink just to fall asleep.”
“There’s a [public] perception of, ‘Why can’t you do something?’” says Sgt. Lori Jaress, head of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT), established as a result of Marbut’s visit, and speaking on behalf of police chief Bernadette DiPino. “It’s not against the law to be homeless. [There is] the mental health issue. There are certain individuals out there who are mentally incompetent; they take them to jail and they are left back on the street. Right now, we have nowhere to put these people.”
“At the end of the day, government is supposed to care for those who can’t care for themselves,” says Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight. “Drive along Central and ask yourself, if that was your sister or brother or child, would you want them sitting there dehydrated in August? If the shelter is not going to be the tool, then what will be? The jail is not the answer.”
The county’s Spitler agrees. “It goes to court, takes state attorney time, public defender time, judge time, he spends the night in jail and they release him in the morning,” he says. “He’s not in jail long enough to receive any mental health or substance abuse programming. It’s not cost effective, hasn’t changed anything. All we are doing is recycling people.”
Larry Eger, Public Defender for Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit covering Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, estimates that half the homeless he defends suffer from mental illness. “The number is phenomenal,” he says. “If we addressed mental illness, we’d affect the bulk of my clients. I feel very bad for law enforcement; we’ve painted ourselves into a corner. The jail becomes a homeless shelter.”
But the homeless are overwhelming Sarasota’s courts and jail. In an effort to save taxpayer money and free up overbooked jail space, Circuit Court Judge Andrew Owens—a noted proponent of criminal justice alternatives, who did not respond to requests for comment—has taken it upon himself to oversee a mental health court and Friday “jail sweeps,” identifying and releasing those locked up for petty offenses. According to Terry Drake, Misdemeanor Division Chief for the Sarasota Public Defender’s Office, the program saved taxpayers $300,000 last year.
“We have a lot of rich people in Sarasota who don’t want to see [homeless people in public spaces],” Drake says. “But [petty ordinance arrests] fill up the jail, create a lot of stress on our system. [The arrests are] mostly ‘open container,’ ‘sleeping in the park,’ the same people over and over. For every one arrest in the county, I get 10, 20 from the city. I wish [the city] would stop arresting people for sleeping in the park. I want the rapist in [jail]. I don’t want the people sleeping in the park.”
Owens’ jail sweeps are an emergency measure to manage the number of homeless people filling our jails. A shelter would offer an alternative way to handle the problem, with treatment aimed at ending their homelessness. Among those contacted for this article, there is widespread support for a Marbut shelter on the county administrative and law enforcement sides, as well as at the public defender’s office. But with their elected officials having said “no,” the city’s cops are in a more delicate position.
“The shelter’s so political,” says the city’s Jaress, “I don’t even want to touch it.”
Though the city has closed discussion of the shelter, the county remains open. “We’re on pause,” says county commissioner Christine Robinson. “We need the city to come back to the table on this.”
Paralegal Michael Barfield, vice president of the ACLU of Florida, takes credit for bringing the homeless debate to a head in Sarasota, a claim even some of his many enemies concede. Working with Sarasota attorney Andrea Mogensen, Barfield has repeatedly sued the city over its quality of life ordinances, including those he says target the homeless. With multiple private websites dedicated to attacking him, Barfield’s lawsuits have been described by his critics as a predatory way for him to earn legal fees.
“I wish [the city] would put me out of business,” says Barfield. “There’s a war on the homeless being waged here. [The city] has made a niche business for us because of its repeated acts of unconstitutional behavior. The city is in for a rude awakening once season comes. The homeless are not going away; I’m not going away.”
Lost in the more obvious “not in my back yard” elements of the Marbut homeless shelter are the ways in which a publicly funded shelter would give Sarasota legal breathing room in how it handles the homeless. Shelter as civic responsibility aside, the beds and services a shelter would provide would also protect the city from lawsuits like Barfield’s.
Earlier this year, a federally approved consent decree known as Pottinger was upheld with slight modifications after the city of Miami challenged it. Described by the Florida Bar’s Public Interest Law Section as the “gold standard” in protecting homeless rights, 1998’s Pottinger came out of a 1992 ACLU vs. Miami suit. Pottinger argues that if “shelter” is not afforded the homeless, they cannot be arrested for minor “quality of life” offenses, including being in a park after closing hours, camping (as long as no tent is used), trespassing on public property, or partially blocking a sidewalk. Sleeping and urinating in public are also protected in some instances.
A come-as-you-are shelter would give the city more legal leeway in enforcing quality of life ordinances, allowing it to prohibit the chronically homeless from congregating or storing their belonging on the sidewalks in places like the Rosemary District. If a shelter existed, the police could offer those individuals a choice of going to jail or the shelter.
Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier maintains, “The city has not come close to being in violation [of Pottinger]; I don’t have any concern about [Pottinger] creating any legal liability [for the city].” But he also concedes, “These are difficult questions. Federal courts may have gone the extra mile in protecting the rights of the disadvantaged on the street as opposed to business owners, who have rights, too.”
One of those business owners, Ron Soto of Soto’s Optical and chairman of the Downtown Merchants’ Association, last year began a campaign to discourage visitors from giving money to the homeless. He distributed pamphlets warning, “Don’t give in to panhandling. 93% of the money you give goes to drugs & alcohol (according to Dr. Marbut).” Soto estimates that the majority of the downtown businesses put the pamphlets in their windows.
Soto’s anti-enablement message is one shared by law enforcement, Marbut, and most nonprofit agencies. Lori Jaress of the Sarasota Police Department voices their frustration with streetside donations to the homeless. “We clean it up,” she says, “and here comes somebody, giving a handout. Please don’t give to the homeless; give to the service providers.” Other cities have moved to outlaw feeding the homeless in public; Fort Lauderdale passed such an ordinance in late October and arrested a 90-year-old homeless advocate for violating it two days later. Fort Lauderdale was promptly ridiculed on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, as well as in international headlines.
Soto’s original pamphlets soon became large A-frame plastic signs chained to light poles; in early October he held a press conference at Main Street’s Café Amici to announce the installation of the signs, as well as to ask for donations to the “Downtown Cares” fund, with proceeds to be given to the Salvation Army and others.
Three weeks later, the ACLU’s Michael Barfield posted his own Main Street signs. “Welcome, World’s Meanest City,” they read. “Don’t spend your $$$ downtown. 99% of everything is cheaper elsewhere.”
Soto took down Barfield’s signs as quickly as they went up. “It’s a malicious attack on Ma and Pa businesses,” Soto says. “I can’t understand why anybody would want to sabotage and ruin a downtown. Those poles where he put them up are under contract to the Downtown Merchants Association. I’m already talking to counsel.”
“Freedom of speech wasn’t born from the idea of protecting popular messages. It’s for protecting unpopular messages,” says Barfield. “I’ve told the city attorney to instruct Soto there will be consequences. Some of [the downtown merchants] are really misguided with how they deal with the homeless. Some are really, really mean.” A few weeks later, the commission rewrote city code to forbid any private signs on city light poles and sidewalks.
For now, it’s mostly status quo on the chronic homeless problem in the city of Sarasota. But city manager Barwin and the city commission point to the city’s “HOT Teams” (though there is currently only one HOT team, the city refers to it in the plural) as a significant new city homeless initiative. (At press time, the city announced plans to form a second team.) The HOT team pairs longtime homeless liaison officer Dave Dubendorf with newly hired mental health case worker Calvin Collins. The pair spend their days making contact with the homeless and urging them to take advantage of services.
“Sometimes it takes two contacts, sometimes it takes 100,” Dubendorf says of getting the homeless to use services. “The police department has been doing what we’re doing forever. We’ve just put a title on it now.”
“It’s a long process, but we have tenacity,” Collins agrees. “We have a responsibility to them wherever they’re from. We don’t give up on anyone.”
“The HOT team is a waste of time until you have a 24/7 place to take [the homeless] to,” says Marbut. “[The city is] trying all these Mickey Mouse, oddball, bizarre tweaks. None of them are going to work. If you want big change you have to make big changes. What the city is doing is gimmickry. It’s not national best practices, and it’s going to waste a lot of money.”
Since the defeat of the shelter, one new city idea, still in the planning stage, is to allow a handful of mothballed parking meters to be used by homeless agencies to raise funds.
Another city initiative, “Homeward Bound,” works with an existing Salvation Army program to pay transportation costs to reunite homeless people with their families elsewhere.
“Florida City to Provide 1-way Bus Tickets for Homeless People,” crowed a Huffington Post headline in early September, followed by many other media outlets. The impression was that Sarasota was paying to ship its homeless away; the HufPo story reported that the city commission had approved “$1,000 for one-way bus tickets” and had asked for additional donations from the public.
The figure led to some initial confusion.
“That whole week [among the homeless], it was, ‘Can I get my thousand
dollars?’” says Sarasota Police Department’s Jaress.
What the homeless didn’t understand was that the city commission hadn’t approved $1,000 for each of those willing to leave. “America’s Meanest City” had funded Homeward Bound with $1,000—total.
The abandoned railroad tracks through town have been called by those in the know a highway for Sarasota’s homeless, and on a Thursday last fall, the signs are everywhere: a dirty pillow and bedroll laid out in the grass in the midday sun as though someone has just stood up and left; a cluster of ratty tents and chairs under an overgrown copse of live oaks surrounding a small grill. Plastic garbage bags
full of clothes are piled around bedding and shoes in the historic Oaklands/Woodlawn Cemetery, where some have taken up residence among the graves.
This is just a few blocks northeast of Sarasota’s tony Main Street, in a light industrial area of warehouses and vacant lots. The trees and weeds here make up a wild and secluded micro-environment within the city of Sarasota itself, much larger and more sprawling than one might guess for a place in the midst of an urban core.
Along the way, near where the tracks cross 12th Street, another, larger collection of tents can vaguely be made out in the bracken beside a muddy culvert; it’s here that voices finally respond to a reporter’s, “Hello, anyone home?”
“Watch out for the booby traps,” one of the blinking figures who emerges says. It’s dark in those trees, and the sun is blinding him. He’s young, shirtless, with a few quarter-sized scabs on his forehead, like he’s recently lost a fight. He’s lean and unhealthy-looking, with a distended belly that might betray malnutrition, or alcoholism.
“Booby traps?” the reporter asks, taking a big step back.
“Just kidding,” he smiles and says. His teeth are a mess.
The interview that follows is muted by suspicion.
Trevor, 29, and his friend, Bobby, a bearded 31-year-old, offer a few curt answers: How long have they been camping here? “Five months.” Anyone bother them? “The raccoons.”
Why don’t they stay at the nearby Salvation Army shelter? “It’s cleaner here than there.” How do they get by? “You panhandle every once in awhile,” Bobby says.
A skinny young woman pokes her head out of the tarp concealing their camp’s entrance: Bobby’s common-law wife. Would she be willing to give her first name, speak briefly with a reporter? “Nuh-uh.”
It’s then that the photographer who has come along notices some of the flourishes of the camp’s exterior: a few, cheap Halloween decorations strung up in the trees, a neat footbridge of sand and boards built over the fetid culvert, bicycle reflectors staked in the ground on either side. Warming up slightly, Bobby nods with pride. “I cleaned this place and made it my thing,” he says. “I don’t hide; I have my reflectors [out]. Officer Dave [Dubendorf of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team] knows I’m here. We’re very respectful, we don’t cause any problems. Because we ain’t been a problem, [the Sarasota Police] only come here about once a month.”
They lead the way across the footbridge, and Bobby lifts the tarp to allow a glimpse inside. Here, a much bigger area is revealed; coolers, tents, camp chairs, and yes, some strewn trash. There’s plenty of room for a half dozen people to get by. There’s a plastic dog house and out bounds “Chickory,” a happy retriever mutt. Though the ground is swept, the camp can’t be called clean. There are flies; there’s a dampness to everything. This is much more like a long-term refugee camp than any sort of pleasant weekend camping.
The photographer ducks his head under the tarp to go in and take some pictures. Out on the tracks, Bobby is willing to answer a few more questions, though he’ll soon clam up like his wife and friend. Has he tried the services at the Salvation Army? “Yes.” And he doesn’t want to stay there? “It’s unsanitary.” Where’s he from? “Perry, Fla.” Why is he homeless? “No work.” Does he struggle with mental illness as many of the homeless are said to? “No.” Does he have addiction issues?” “No.”
What about the future? “The future?” Bobby says and makes a face. Yes, the future; five months from now, for example, what’s the plan? For a moment, he’s quiet, as if he’s searching for an answer. Then he shakes his head like he simply isn’t able to fathom the question.
Contributing editor and novelist Tony D’Souza has won a wide range of awards for his work for this magazine, including a Florida Magazine Association first place for Best In-Depth Reporting in 2013; he was also named a finalist for Best Essay from the City and Regional Magazine Association in 2014.