Odd Fellows

Guest Correspondence

SRQ Daily Columnist Diana Hamilton, after living 35 years in Sarasota, labels herself a pragmatic optimist with radical humorist tendencies and a new found resistance to ice cream.

It’s the last Sunday in November.  I’m putting up holiday lights at the old Odd Fellows Hall where I work as gardener general fixer upper for friends who fell in love with its history and

character enough to restore it and then open a law firm there on U.S. 301 about six car lengths from where it intersects with Fruitville Road. Across the way I notice several youngish men preparing for their own workday taking turns in shifts of two shambling along holding pitiful scrawled cardboard signs whose sad messages are specifically tuned to elicit voluntary donations, and the occasional “good luck man” from one of every 25 cars stopping at the light.

Stepping into the road to collect these offerings is against the law, and soon the police come to loudspeaker a warning, “get off the corner”. Sarasota Police Department regular procedure is to leave, then circle back, but before they can move a fella I recognize from when he was arrested in the law firm parking lot earlier in the year leaps into the road, dances around the car taunting the officers, then runs away. Such out-of-control behavior is not unusual. Working outside all around downtown I’ve witnessed similar antics, but today the players are more defiant, so much so that when wild man retakes his corner and gets himself arrested, his cohorts remain close by to chant curses at the officer, whose car is now up on the sidewalk only a curb edge away from heavy traffic. I watch in awe as he calmly guides the filthy squirming head beneath his hand safely into the back seat, then leaving his sector one car shy, he’s off to file the paperwork, as two more sign beggars begin their shift.00

A year ago, many of us, the Sheriff, the SPD and eight City/ County commissioners felt the wind was sure and strong at our backs, heading us toward a solution, if not to homelessness, at the very least to a workable alternative to jail for bringing those homeless we could humanely in off the street. We had hired a plain-speaking, connect-the-dots expert, Dr. Robert Marbut, to make a plan, and then as with most plans that pass through our city, on most things that might require leadership, due diligence and courage to succeed, we lost our nerve to the voices of fear and bureaucratic we-can’t-becauses until the wind died out from under us.

Now we’re stuck.

If I, an activist for the homeless, appear to lack empathy toward Sunday’s crowd of street hustlers, hear me; I don’t believe them any less homeless or less hungry than two men I witnessed yesterday eating out of a dumpster. What I do believe is this: our city has a reputation for being confused and hamstrung by our inadequacies, and our inability to make the correct choices has made us an easy mark and it will get worse.

If Dr. Marbut left nothing else behind in our collective consciousness it ought be this; we cannot arrest our way out of our problem. Homelessness is not a crime. The real crime lies in continuing to do nothing to improve the situation while pretending we can police it away, ultra-stressing our resources and placing our officers in harm's way working street corner arrests over cardboard signs. 

SRQ Daily Columnist Diana Hamilton, after living 35 years in Sarasota, labels herself a pragmatic optimist with radical humorist tendencies and a new found resistance to ice cream.

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