Sarasota moving from ‘meanest’ to ‘most humane’ on the homeless front
Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Opinion
That is, until recently. If you haven’t heard much about progress on the homeless front in the last few months, it’s because there actually has been some. It’s just taking place outside the typically intense level of public scrutiny and political feuding that sabotaged so many previous efforts. And, as Jon Thaxton, senior vice president for community investment at the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, said at a recent forum hosted by the Downtown Sarasota Condo Association, what has taken place so far “is just the beginning.”
Thaxton, who has been facilitating meetings with a team of city, county and agency staffers, stepped in as peacemaker after an April 2017 report by Susan Pourciau of the Florida Housing Coalition recommended the formation of a leadership board to support the creation of an effective homeless crisis response system. By then, there was such a history of animosity between city and county officials that even some of those involved saw reconciliation as a dim prospect.
“I did not see a path forward as little as a year ago,” said Kevin Stiff, coordinator of homeless response for the City of Sarasota. “We were on very different planes. We had to look at diversion, outreach, coordination of services and housing, and we had to consider how government can respond when we are not a social organization. We needed coordination.”
Out of the public eye, Thaxton led discussions with Stiff; Wayne Applebee, director of homeless services for Sarasota County; Major Charles Whiten of the Salvation Army; Edward De Marco, DCO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and Judge Erika Quartermaine, the catalyst behind the year-old Comprehensive Treatment Court jail diversion program for chronically homeless individuals with mental health issues. The city/county divide was the thorniest dilemma.
“There was an impasse,” Thaxton recalled, “and nothing was bringing the sides together with productive dialogue. I could see the middle ground and more areas of agreement than disagreement. We started with the easy issues and built trust between the agencies. When we all began working together, it became seamless.”
Applebee, asked to take the lead on homelessness for the county five years ago on a “temporary” basis, said the meetings gave him “more hope than I had at any other time in the past.”
“Our elected officials let us work in a quiet space outside public inspection. There was no single answer, but we found we had more in common than we disagreed upon. It was just how do we all get in the same boat and row in the same direction?”
DeMarco said the group tried to focus on two things: creating a coordinated system between entities that prioritized those with the highest need, and putting the emphasis on treating each person as an individual. There was also a change in attitude and approach toward offering help.
“For a long time, we asked, ‘Do you need services?’ and got no response,” DeMarco said. “Then we started saying, ‘Would you like help finding an apartment?’ and they’d do anything to get help.”
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation team helped parlay a $1 million donation toward housing the homeless offered two years ago to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County by an anonymous resident into a potential $2 million — five times what was spent on housing the homeless last year — by encouraging matching contributions from local philanthropists.
“Today we have $1.5 million in the bank, and we’re ready to rock and roll,” Thaxton said.
Among the other recent accomplishments noted at the forum:
Quartermaine reported 85 participants in the Comprehensive Treatment Court’s first year of operation, with more than a third successfully “graduated” into housing.
According to Whiten, the Salvation Army, which now offers “low barrier” temporary housing beds, has had 234 coordinated entries thus far, and in 2017, moved 74 people from homelessness to housing.
In August, the county will launch a homeless outreach team in line with the city’s current HOT team, which offers entry into the coordinated system for any homeless individual who voluntarily consents (and meets minimal safety standards). Officers are trained to maintain a level of engagement with anyone living on the streets so “even those choosing to be homeless are offered education and support,” said Stiff.
The funding level for crisis response and direct services in Sarasota County has increased more than 100 percent in the past year to support the new plan, Applebee said.
And while DeMarco said, “We are so far from all the way,” he is starting to see the collaborative approach and funding increases have an impact. The soon-to-be-released 2018 “Point in Time” survey, which establishes the current number of homeless individuals in Sarasota, is likely to show at least a 10 percent decline, he said.
“We all have one goal in mind: treating these homeless individuals like people and obtaining the highest level of self-sustainability for them possible,” said Thaxton. “We have hope for the people who have no hope for themselves.”
Last year, the International Association of Chiefs of Police bestowed its Leadership in Human and Civil Rights award on the City of Sarasota and its police department for their humane approach to serving homeless individuals, a most at-risk and vulnerable population.
From meanest to most humane. It’s taken far too long, but at least we’re headed in the right direction.