- This is the third and final installment in the “Day in the life of the homeless” trilogy.
For many in the homeless community, the day begins and ends at the Salvation Army Center of Hope at the corner of Central Avenue and 10th Street, starting with breakfast in the morning and ending with dinner in the evening.
For those not engaged in daytime rehab programs, the daily migration of the homeless community often includes a stop at Resurrection House, followed by a trip to the library or idle time spent at a local park or other public space. Some spend their daylight hours gathering goods and supplies in preparation for the night to come.
Late in the afternoon, foot traffic on Central Avenue picks up as hundreds of homeless folks (and people on the verge of homelessness) gather at the Salvation Army for a free dinner.
In 2010, while doing research for radio program about homelessness, I went “homeless” for day. I was unshaven, wore old clothes and walked around town with my backpack on.
Inside Starbucks, I pulled some coins out of a plastic bag to pay for my coffee. I said hello to the middle-aged man standing in line in front of me. Dressed in a tie and white dress shirt, the man never acknowledged my presence because he assumed I was a vagrant. I knew then how it felt to be disregarded as homeless.
Later on that chilly, damp February afternoon, I walked 12 blocks from the library to the Salvation Army and signed up for meal privileges. After filling out the proper form, I was given a paper document that contained a barcode used to track meals and services received.
Once inside the cafeteria, I ate a much-appreciated meal of salad, beef stew, green beans, mashed potatoes and dinner rolls — with a cup of watered-down soda to drink.
I shared the dinner table with three homeless people. While eating, I felt a strong sense of gratitude and humility — grateful that I was not actually homeless and humbled by the presence of those that were.
I still have my Salvation Army meal card and I keep it in my glove compartment should I ever fall on hard times.
After dinner, the dining room is cleared, the doors are locked, the patio gates are closed and the outdoor area is vacated. Those enrolled in Salvation Army housing and rehabilitation programs receive shelter for the night; those that are not are more or less on their own.
Home For the Night
The Salvation Army Center of Hope provides 238 shelter beds for those participating in Salvation Army recovery and transitional living programs. On a daily basis, the facility also provides emergency overnight shelter for up to 80 additional people, some of whom have just entered into homelessness.
The emergency shelter arrangements consist of men sleeping on mattress pads placed on the cafeteria floor and women utilizing temporary bedding elsewhere in the building.
Everyone is entitled to 10 free Salvation Army overnight stays in the course of a lifetime. Once you use your 10 free stays, it costs $10 a night to sleep on the floor. Exceptions are made during extreme weather conditions, including when the outdoor temperature drops below 40 degrees. During those periods the fee is waived.
There is an undefined limit to the number of times a person can take advantage of the $10 emergency shelter provision. This short-term solution allows staff a chance to evaluate the needs of the homeless person in hopes of getting them into a rehabilitation programs.
Between 2,800 to 3,000 people take shelter at the Salvation Army Center of Hope each year, with the facility population turning over 12 to 14 times annually. The total annual operating budget is $8 million.
Elsewhere in Sarasota, Catholic Charities runs a home for HIV/AIDS patients, providing a dozen or so shelter beds.
The Harvest House Transitional Center on Lime Avenue provides limited shelter beds as part of their residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
SPARCC (Safe Place and Rape Crisis Center) provides shelter to a small number of women in crisis.
Where to Turn?
Those who refuse to participate in rehabilitation programs are left to their own devices when it comes to sleeping accommodations. During the early evening hours it’s common to see a homeless person on a bicycle, peddling to camps in woods or other secluded spots on the outskirts of town.
The goal is to get settled in before darkness falls. The hope is to make it through the night undisturbed by police officers, property owners or attackers.
On my “Local Matters” radio show I have often called for the city and county governments to become partners in funding, building and maintaining a homeless shelter. To date, there has been little political or public will to do so.
At the very least, I felt our elected leaders could spur efforts to build a managed tent city similar to Pinellas Hope near Tampa. Pinellas Hope is built on 11 acres of land owned by Catholic Charities. Tents are provided to the homeless and several rules are in place to ensure civility and order among occupants. A common area includes a television and other amenities.
Pinellas Hope is located along a bus route so residents have access to public transportation. Occupants are free to come and go but are subjected to a breathalyzer test upon entry.
Resident intake is processed through the county sheriff’s office. Residency is for the local homeless, not transients passing through and in need of a place to stay. The goal is to provide shelter long enough for a person to get back on their financial feet.
Pinellas Hope is now building apartment buildings on that same location as part of their expansion efforts.
Out of curiosity, I visited the KOA Kampground company website and learned that a full-blown KOA Kampground with showers, a camp store, electrical outlets and a pool can be built for about $2 million — not including the cost of the land.
A more modest campground designed with the homeless in mind and built on donated land would cost far less than $1 million, including additional costs associated with managing and maintaining the facility.
I’ve often wondered why the Shelter Box organization can successfully provide emergency housing to disaster victims in foreign countries, yet that model has not been adopted by local governments to assist the displaced here at home.
One city commissioner told me he would consider using money from the city’s general fund to help finance some form of homeless shelter, but he stressed that the county would have to take the lead on the project and the facility would have to be built outside the city limits.
Salvation Army General Manager Bryan Pope recently broadened my views on the viability of a tent city. He said Pinellas Hope is the exception and not the rule when it comes to tent cities being successful.
Pope thinks it is a mistake to locate a homeless shelter on the outskirts of town, citing as an example the now-vacant Salvation Army shelter located outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
He said the homeless are unlikely to frequent a shelter far removed from service providers, employers and other urban entities, and added that he does not believe in enabling the homeless; he believes in giving them a chance to help themselves.
Having worked with the homeless for many years, Pope does not believe there is a great demand for additional shelter space in Sarasota. Nor does he feel that additional shelters will solve the problem of homelessness. He believes the solution lies in rehabilitation efforts and job creation programs.
Pope sees education and financial discipline as the keys to preventing homelessness in the first place. “You cannot live on minimum wage in Sarasota or anywhere else if you don’t have marketable skills,” he said.
“You need a job or you need to be in school. You need to graduate from high school — that’s the first step.”
Resurrection House volunteer and homeless advocate Ali Kleber is among those that would like to see a Safe Harbor facility built in Sarasota.
Safe Harbor is a sheriff’s department-managed indoor facility built adjacent to the county jail in Clearwater. It has the capacity to shelter 300 residents. The emphasis is on sobriety, preventing the homeless from going to jail, avoiding self-defeating behavior, providing job training and employment skills, and helping the homeless person transition out of the shelter and into a place of their own.
Safe Harbor is based on the Haven of Hope model created by Robert Marbut, a former city council member in San Antonio, Tex. The idea is to combine all the shelter and services in a single one-stop campus with an emphasis on rehabilitation.
When it comes to job programs, Cincinnati Works is considered to be an organization worthy of duplication elsewhere.
As for you, the citizen … don’t feel you have to tackle homelessness on a large scale to be of help. Do it on a small scale by giving one trusted homeless person some work around your home or business. Befriend a homeless person who doesn’t pose a threat to your personal safety and act as a mentor to them. Volunteer at Resurrection House or The Salvation Army,or make a donation to help the institutions that help the homeless.
To borrow an old African proverb (and book title from Hillary Clinton), I believe it “takes a village” to better address homeless in this beautiful city of ours. Do your part and encourage our elected leaders to do the same.