County to Consider Emergency Beds, HOT Teams



Homeless people in Sarasota County may soon be delivered to shelter beds instead of jail cells, should Sarasota County Commissioners pass a "Quality of Life" ordinance today. But law enforcement officials remain concerned about the costs of proactively seeking out transients in a 725-square-mile unincorporated area.

Commissioners today will vote on a contract for emergency beds housed at The Salvation Army in Sarasota, and will consider an ordinance that allows sheriff’s deputies to take transients violating an outdoor lodging ordinance to go to the shelter instead of into jail. The approach largely builds upon the Homeless Outreach Teams used by the Sarasota Police Department for the past two years, according to Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County director of Homeless Services.

But Sheriff Tom Knight suggested to commissioners in a letter in August that such efforts will put increased demands on law enforcement serving a regional jurisdiction. While acknowledging Sarasota deals with a “steady homeless and transient population” more concentrated than the county, Sarasota police still work within a 25-square-mile city where homeless individuals congregate in select areas. “As evident in various parks and beaches throughout Englewood, Nokomis and Venice, we too have a large contingency who may need services,” Knight wrote to county commissioners.

The Sheriff’s Office estimates the cost for a fully loaded team of clinicians and deputies and a sergeant dedicated as a field supervisor for HOT teams would bring an operating budget of $540,700. “While the idea is promising and may certainly make an impact on our homeless and transient populations, the demands it would put on any organization are significant,” Knight writes.

It’s possible county commissioners will wait on implementing the ordinance until later this month, when they are scheduled to discuss budget issues with the sheriff. Applebee says the ordinance would not go into effect until mid-March regardless. He does hope a decision gets made today on funding the emergency shelter beds. “We could have the beds and no ordinance, but we can’t have the ordinance with no beds,” he says. That’s because the ordinance would require beds be available to individuals transported by the sheriff’s office at no cost to the person and with no requirements for treatment programs or religious services. Right now, the city funds 20 beds, and the county action if approved would cover another 30 beds over the next five months. 

The ordinance and use of HOT teams marks a coming together in policy for the city and county, which have debated for four years how to move forward on shelter provisions in a plan to address homelessness. County commissioners in 2013 passed 12 strategic recommendations from consultant Robert Marbut, including the "Quality of Life" ordinance and a call for a shelter that could serve about 250 individuals. But disagreements over creation of a facility incited disagreement between city and county officials. Applebee says that while the 50 beds at The Salvation Army provide only a portion of the beds recommended by Marbut, the city and county have moved ahead with policy addressing any concerns raised legally by the ACLU about providing appropriate shelter conditions. “This is the first implementation of a coordinated system where everybody is working from the same sheet of music,” he says.

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