Image: Cliff Roles

The shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many in Sarasota to stay inside their homes and avoid other people as much as possible. For many of Sarasota's homeless residents, neither of those is an option.

They have no front door to close, and to meet basic needs, like finding food, they must gather at shelters and other facilities. Sarasota city manager Tom Barwin put it bluntly during a City Commission teleconference on Monday: "It's real tough to shelter in place when you don't have a place."

One of the most pressing challenges that Sarasota's homeless face during the pandemic is access to hygiene. Regular hand-washing is key to slowing the transmission of COVID-19, but with government buildings, like libraries, and facilities like the day shelter Resurrection House shut down, many of Sarasota's homeless lack access to restrooms.

Many also live in encampments, often in close proximity to other people, and are unable to follow social distancing guidelinesComplicating matters, many agencies that assist the homeless have been forced to ask their employees to begin working remotely, reducing face-to-face contact between case managers and homeless people seeking help. However, there has yet to be a reported case of a homeless individual testing positive for COVID-19. 

Image: Cliff Roles

The city's Homeless Outreach Team, which is made up of both Sarasota Police Department officers and City of Sarasota social workers, has continued its regular outreach efforts during the pandemic, and has also begun educating the homeless about social distancing. Police Department Sgt. Jaymi Delcos, who leads the city "HOT team," as it's known, says most of the people they encounter are well aware of the coronavirus.

"They're trying to isolate the best that they can," Delcos says. She adds that many of the city's homeless are wearing masks, bandanas or scarves, and they pass along information about the virus via word of mouth. "They're staying on top of things," she says.

The HOT team has begun distributing hand sanitizer and educating the homeless about where they can find restrooms. (Public parks, for example, may be closed, but the restrooms remain open.) They're also informing people that shelters, like the one at the Salvation Army, remain open.

Krsytal Frazier, a social worker who is part of the city's HOT team, says many homeless residents are "nervous." That anxiety has actually motivated some homeless residents to seek help, perhaps sooner than they would have otherwise.

"Now, more than ever, they want shelter," Frazier says. "They realize how important it is to engage with resources in the community." Last week, she says, the HOT team helped six people find housing.

"You never know what is going to be that catalyst in someone's mind," says Chris Johnson, the chief executive officer of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.

According to an annual survey conducted by the Partnership, the total number of homeless individuals in Sarasota County dropped from 971 in 2016 to 594 last year, but Johnson stresses that figure is an incomplete, once-yearly snapshot. The number of volunteers who conduct the Point in Time survey varies from year to year. Fewer volunteers means the team covers less ground, which can depress results. Also, according to Johnson, some homeless residents know when the survey is being conducted and will temporarily move to different counties to avoid participating.

Johnson says a more accurate measure of the homeless population is a database shared by a number of agencies that is updated daily. That list runs to almost 1,000 people in Sarasota County, most of whom have not sought social services in the past three months. Those people may have found housing or moved out of the area, but no one really knows.

Local governments may soon receive assistance in their efforts to help the homeless. The federal government's coronavirus relief act includes funding for programs for homeless individuals, which could result in more than $500,000 to help Sarasota County address homelessness.

A risk, however, is that the area's homeless population may rise because of the widespread job losses that have hit the country since the pandemic began. Nearly 10 million people have applied for unemployment assistance in recent weeks. Federal programs that help keep people employed, like $349 billion in loans to small businesses, may in turn help people stave off homelessness. "We want to keep people housed in the first place," Johnson says.

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