Family Haven Offers Hope On Challenging Issue



While some aspects of a community plan to tackle homelessness have proved evasive, leaders gathered Monday to celebrate the opening of the North County Emergency Family Haven. The facility, run by Harvest House Transitional Centers in north Sarasota, provides 24 emergency beds for homeless families alongside short-term housing that can hold another 24 people.

Erin Miner, executive director for Harvest House, said people can start using the facility on Wednesday, and there is already a waiting list for the short-term housing. To stay at the haven, there must be at least one adult and one child in a party. "The Family Haven will operate like an 'emergency room' for families in crisis," she said. "When families enter our community's system of homeless services through the Haven, we will be able to provide a safe environment while we work with them to map out their path to stability."

Guests at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday could explore the facilities, including the two emergency units, which feel like a small three-bedroom apartment with two sets of bunk beds in each bedroom and a shared kitchen-living room area for all occupants to share. The short-term units, where people are expected to stay for only three to five months during periods of extended crisis, are considerably more spacious, with 24 beds spread out among five apartment units.

Teri Hansen, executive director of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, said the haven brought to fruition another part of consultant Robert Marbut's plan to address homelessness in Sarasota County. Foundation officials stressed the facility served only transient families. not chronically homeless adults. "This is a watershed moment in our community," she said. "We are entering a new stage in how to help families that are homeless."

Of course, the opening of the haven also highlighted other parts of the Marbut plan not being actively pursued. A recommended come-as-you-shelter, intended to provide beds for chronic cases who often end up in jail before heading straight back to the streets, remains stalled ever since Sarasota City Commissioners pulled out of a site selection process. 

City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell, who has supported most of the Marbut recommendations but was also part of the decision to pull of of the selection effort, said she still hopes a location for a shelter is found. "We will never end homelessness, but the beauty of our task is how you manage it," she said. While the Sarasota ribbon-cutting attracted three county commissioners, two North Port city commissioners and five Venice city council members, Atwell was the only Sarasota city commissioner at the event, with the rest citing Sunshine law concerns related to pending litigation.

But Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast Community Foundation director of investment, said there is still a good amount of work today in addressing the broader issue but that nobody should be discouraged on progress so far. "All the agencies are working together," he said, noting the Marbut report also praised the nonprofit resources in the community. Later in October, the Homeless Management Information System for tracking resources will go live, and a South County portal for the homeless will open in January. "This [Family Haven] happened quickly because it is the most pressing need," Thaxton said, "but this is by no means the endgame."

Picture by Jacob Ogles: Erin Miner, Teri Hansen, Carolyn Mason and Jim Miner cut the ribbon for the North County Emergency Family Haven.

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