Strategy and Hope to Help the Homeless

Gulf Coast


Two important and separate events last Thursday afternoon marked hopeful milestones in our community’s long-running efforts to address homelessness. While they recognized different approaches to serving different homeless populations, they highlight complementary strategies in our cutting-edge efforts to provide a durable and seamless safety net.

The first event was a press conference hosted by Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight to formally introduce his office’s Homeless Outreach Team. The HOT consists of a deputy and two civilian case workers who strive to establish trust with some of our community’s most difficult-to-serve street homeless in order to educate, encourage, and guide them to social services rather than jail.

Inspirational stories shared by Sheriff Knight vividly illuminated both the intense challenges and the life-changing impact of this work. There is the 63-year-old diabetic amputee who struggles with mental health issues and had been homeless for 12 years. The Sheriff’s HOT team secured him a bed at The Salvation Army, where he stabilized physically and emotionally. Now he lives in a house with his own room and regularly meets with a case manager who facilitates his medical needs.

Then there is the 66-year-old woman who lived at a bus stop and could barely communicate or even move. After intensive work by the HOT team, she agreed to go to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where dedicated staff cared for her physically and emotionally. During her difficult but effective stay, she was eventually reconnected with family she had lost years ago to foster care, and a son agreed to become her medical surrogate.

These are just two stories of real people whose acute needs could be met only by a community-wide effort, with extraordinary assistance from The Salvation Army. With Sarasota Police Department HOT teams already active in the City, the Sheriff’s new team further transforms law enforcement’s role in helping our homeless population in our unincorporated areas of Sarasota County. Thank you, Sheriff Knight and your team, for your tireless work to help homeless individuals stabilize their lives and eventually graduate to supportive housing.

Just a couple of hours after that press conference, I joined a large, super-charged group of community partners and Gulf Coast donors to cut the ribbon on a new “drop-in center” near Newtown for unaccompanied homeless youth. The trim blue-and-white cottage, operated by the innovative nonprofit Harvest House, offers a new front door to services, support, and safe socializing for teens and young adults who are homeless and on their own.

More than 400 youth between 16 and 24 in Sarasota County endure homelessness with no family support system or safe place to go. They have unique needs—on top of the same challenges every young person faces. They are subject to high levels of criminal victimization. But these youth are also brave, resilient, and strong. They seek—and deserve—love, stability, independence, and opportunity. One of the coolest things about the new Youth Center is that teens who have experienced homelessness themselves weighed in on the interior design and furnishing of the repurposed space, ensuring that it welcomes and suits other youth facing the same struggles they’ve lived through.

For more than a year, Gulf Coast has led a planning effort with a work group of service providers committed to forging a countywide support system to meet these young people’s diverse needs. The new Youth Center will be one of two, with a second targeted for the southern part of Sarasota County. Thank you to Erin Minor and her Harvest House team for making a dream come true for the youth we are working to help. Thank you to all of our work group members. And thank you to the generous donors, like The Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, who have helped fund the Youth Center as well as housing subsidies and other pieces of the support system being built.

Without this service, our community’s unaccompanied youth are likely to become our next generation of chronically homeless adults. It is up to us—all of us—to ensure that doesn’t happen.

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

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