From the Editor: The Problem of Homelessness in Sarasota

Pam Daniel on Sarasota's homeless impasse.

By Pam Daniel December 30, 2014

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‘‘Why me?” is a natural question to ask ourselves when we’re confronted with a knotty problem. But it’s not an effective strategy for moving forward, especially when you’ve been elected to lead. Yet as you’ll read in Tony D’Souza’s powerful “Going Nowhere,” in this issue, “Why me?” sums up the response of some of our civic officials when it comes to the problem of the hundreds of homeless adults who have been living on our city’s streets and sidewalks and in hidden camps in recent years.

Many of the homeless suffer from mental illness, addiction and a host of other issues; some are aggressive and dangerous. In addition to the problems that afflict them, their presence is creating problems for everyone from businesses, shoppers, library patrons and families in parks to law enforcement and our courts. “I was surprised to learn how small a segment of the population they are, and yet how much they cost us all,” Tony says.

Let’s be clear. Homelessness is an enormous, complicated problem, perhaps the toughest one our city leaders will ever face. But what good does it do to protest, as vice mayor Susan Chapman did last year, “Why should we be responsible? 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? Why should we be burdened with providing services for the region’s chronic homeless?”

We asked Tony, who recently moved back to Sarasota after an absence of several years, to look for answers to those questions. Many reporters would be put off by such a broad, far-reaching assignment, but Tony, who has won state and national awards for investigative journalism, welcomed the opportunity. “I live here now; I’m raising my kids here,” he said. “This story affects my community.” For nearly two months, he conducted scores of interviews, attended community meetings, visited homeless camps and read everything he could find on the subject.

He learned that “many people and organizations are doing their best,” he says, and that Sarasota has made great strides in helping homeless families. But dealing with single homeless adults is a different story, and that’s the story Tony tells. It’s a deeply human and often emotional story, seething with power struggles, competing agendas and widespread misconceptions, especially about the homeless shelter that was the linchpin of the strategy that Robert Marbut, the consultant hired by the city and county, recommended.

It’s normal, of course, for complex civic issues—especially in contentious Sarasota—to spark controversy. In theory, at least, that’s why we have leaders—to stand back from the fray, look at the big picture, and brave the heat to act for the greatest good.

Last summer, when it became clear how politically charged the idea of Marbut’s shelter was, the commissioners tabled the idea. I happen to believe, like most of those Tony interviewed, that the shelter, which is modeled on shelters that have been effective in other cities, would have reduced street homelessness and provided services the chronically homeless desperately need.

But if our leaders think that’s not the answer—fair enough. So what do they propose doing instead? Six months later, nothing of import—aside from unanimously agreeing to buy some bus tickets and send a few homeless back where they came from, an idea that for a while made Sarasota a running joke in the national media.

Meanwhile, the problem is growing. Now some of downtown’s homeless have moved into Gillespie Park, upsetting nearby residents. One commissioner responded by suggesting banning everyone but neighborhood residents from the park. Aside from the issues that raises—how do you deny the public access to a public park?—it fails to address the problem. Banning the homeless from certain places will not make them magically disappear. Those unfortunate, unwanted men and women, who are both a blemish on our beautiful city and our brothers and sisters in humanity, will still be here—and we can expect more to arrive in the balmy winter months ahead.

The question—for our leaders and ourselves—is not  “Why is this our problem?” The question is, “How can we now begin to solve it?”

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