Climbing the Hill on Homelessness

Guest Correspondence


Portland, Oregon, had always been a place I wanted to visit. The “Rose City” has long been known as a beautiful city championing progressive policies that support public transportation, green spaces and parks.

So Gina Taylor and I flew there this summer to begin a bike ride that would take us through the spectacular Columbia River Gorge and the rolling hills of the Willamette Valley. But before we began the bike ride, we decided to spend a few days in Portland and walk the city.

When we finished our three days exploring on foot, one of the most lasting impressions was not the scenic parks or the multitude of fun places to eat and drink. It was the severity of Portland’s homeless problem. The head of the Portland police union described it this way: “Our City has become a cesspool. Livability that once made Portland a unique and vibrant city is now replaced with human feces in businesses doorways, in our parks, and on our streets.”

The facts bear this out: Portland’s homeless problem is proportionately twice the national average. And the causes are the same as we experience in Sarasota—lack of affordable housing and a population that requires increased social services like mental-health services.

Homelessness is not a circumstance that will ever end, but creating a safety net that helps people attain affordable housing and critical support services goes a long way toward addressing this issue we all must face. In Sarasota, we have made remarkable progress over the past five years, even if it’s not often remarked upon and we are far from finished.

Some examples of that progress were shared this summer when the Suncoast Rapid Rehousing Program held a “move-in celebration” lunch for several individuals who settled into stable housing after years of homelessness. The program, run by St. Vincent dePaul (SVdP) CARES out of the Glasser-Schoenbaum Human Services Center, provides a pathway to permanent housing for the most vulnerable and historically hardest-to-serve homeless adults in our community.

At the luncheon, Mike spoke about living in the woods for over a decade. He had been seeking the help he needed for years before the Suncoast Rapid Rehousing Program was formed. Mike thanked the City of Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Team for their “persistence” in connecting him to services, and he credited SVdP CARES with “saving” him. Most touching was Mike’s vow, “If I can pay it back, I will.” Just sharing his own story was a great start.

Another speaker was a property owner named Matthew. He is one of several landlords who connected with SVdP CARES housing specialists and is willing to rent to individuals struggling to leave homelessness behind. His comment “I feel like a den mother with these guys” showed how much he cares. The engagement of landlords like Matthew truly makes the difference.

SVdP CARES has plenty more success stories. Like Robert, who exemplifies the power of second chances. After he was released from prison without a housing plan, Robert bounced between shelters and the streets until he enrolled in the rapid rehousing program last year. Robert felt he served his time and was determined to find employment and a place of his own, if only he could access those opportunities. He quickly secured a job and within a few months earned a pay raise. The SVdP team found him housing with a landlord willing to offer him that second chance. Robert recently graduated from the program, stably housed and self-sufficient.

I love these success stories all the more because I know how hard-earned each one is. The work behind them is cheapened if we don’t pause to reflect and appreciate that—to celebrate them together. 

We still have a homeless issue. Fortunately, ours is far from the scale Portland experiences. Thanks to generous donors and their gifts through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, and Gulf Coast Community Foundation, we have been able to fund critical services like the rapid rehousing program. We need even more philanthropists who want to invest in successful, transformative work to support our community’s most vulnerable.

Thank you to the Suncoast Rapid Rehousing staff and the dozens of partner agencies that make up our region’s ever-strengthening “continuum of care” for those experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Thank you to courageous landlords like Matthew, who take a personal risk to give back in such a vital way.

And thank you, most of all, to the homeless and formerly homeless individuals who invest in themselves by reconnecting with our community and developing relationships that will help them thrive. You are worth celebrating.

Mark S. Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia: A homeless man in Portland.

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