- This is the second story in Joe’s three-part series that looks at how the homeless spend their days and where they can turn for help.
The middle of the day presents unique challenges for the homeless and the community they impact. After breakfast at Salvation Army, and a shower and services received at Resurrection House, what else is there to do?
The homeless are like sharks — not in their personal demeanor, but because they have to stay in constant motion to survive. For sharks, movement equates breathing. For the homeless, movement helps avoid conflict, arrest, everyday hassles and boredom — the ever-present companion of the homeless. With little or no money and limited means of transportation (walk, bike or bus), there’s not a lot to do.
Takin’ It to the Streets
Those making a serious effort to escape homelessness spend their days looking for work or day labor, receiving job skills training or getting help for substance abuse.
One of the most encouraging recent developments in the homeless community is the creation of the Salvation Army Street Teams, a program that Sarasota City Commissioners recently agreed to fund to the tune of $160,000 over the next two years.
The money provides for 15 shelter beds within the Salvation Army Center of Hope on 10th Street, and City Commissioners are to be applauded for supporting this program.
Each weekday morning the green-shirted Street Team participants go out and pick up litter along two city streets: Main Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
This work schedule gets members back in the routine of getting up, getting ready for work and accepting the responsibilities of holding a job. Team members spend their afternoons receiving job readiness training and looking for employment.
The four-month old program has already resulted in 15 team members getting jobs. Many of the hirings have been the result of direct contact between participants and local business owners.
According to City Finance Director Chris Lyons, the city is looking to lease the former police substation next to the Salvation Army at a discounted rate of $800 per month. The building will be used to provide administrative support and training for the Street Teams program while also serving as an early morning congregating area for the homeless between the hours of 5:30 and 8:30 a.m.
The Sarasota Police Department, with the approval of city commissioners, designates one full-time officer to serve as the department’s transient officer, patrolling areas with high numbers of homeless and working to reduce crime and resident and business owner frustration. This is a temporary position but at least one city commissioner hopes it becomes permanent.
An Army of Services
In addition to the Street Teams, others receiving temporary shelter at the Salvation Army spend their days trying to get clean and sober in the 10-week residential VIP-ER program that provides shelter during the course of the recovery program.
The similar Community Recover Program is a 10-week, faith-based residential program based on Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 Step model, with an emphasis on spirituality.
At the county jail, current inmates interested in maintaining sobriety upon release participate in the Jail Pod Recovery Program. Now in its third year and currently serving 48 men and 32 women, the Pod program consists of volunteers and Salvation Army staff teaching recovery classes and hosting 12 Step meetings, with the hope that participants will embrace and maintain sobriety when released from jail.
Salvation Army’s Families in Transitional Housing (FAITH) Program provides transitional housing and services for homeless families with children. Residents get a furnished rent-free apartment for one year, giving them a place to rebuild their lives. Participants must obtain full-time employment and practice personal and fiscal responsibility while also receiving life skills training.
Dog Day Afternoons
Those in the homeless community not engaged in recovery or rehab programs, or those not working (yes, some homeless people actually have jobs), tend to wander aimlessly, simply killing time until dinner is served at the Salvation Army.
Some in the homeless community spend their afternoons at Resurrection House. Others sit by the bayfront or hang out at Payne Park or Gillespie Park. For those that have a little pocket change, a tall-boy or 40-ounce beer helps pass the time.
Some folks hang around outside the Salvation Army and others wind up downtown, much to the displeasure of residents and merchants. The worst offenders set up shop on city sidewalks, panhandling or creating public distractions that further alienate them from the community at large.
Sarasota’s homeless population is drawn to the downtown area because it is close to where the service providers are located. For good or ill, it is common knowledge that you will not go hungry in Sarasota despite its bogus reputation as being “the meanest city in America” when it comes to treatment of the homeless. I used to live in Sanford outside of Orlando, and the homeless people there get far less support than they get here.
The Salvation Army and many local churches and charitable organizations provide ample dining opportunities. Critics of these feeding programs believe they encourage more homeless people to come to Sarasota, but data shows that most members of the homeless population have local ties.
Five Points Park is pretty quiet these days, but it remains among the local hot spots for food stamp fraud. Many homeless people receive up to $200 a month in food stamps, delivered in the form of a debit card. You cannot use the card for tobacco or alcohol and some other restrictions apply.
Given the ease of access to organized feedings and the spending restrictions attached to the food stamp cards, many in the homeless community sell their cards to black market profiteers for an exchange rate of 50 cents on the dollar. The sales provide the homeless with quick cash that can be spent on cigarettes, alcohol, drugs or more legitimate purchases, while those buying the cards turn a quick and hefty profit.
A Quiet, Well-Lit Place
The Selby Public Library is six-block walk from Resurrection House and for many is the next stop on the daily trail.
The area outside the library and across the street in Five Points Park has become the epicenter of recent homelessness debates. City commissioners removed the park benches to prevent loitering and a stronger city trespassing ordinance is coming soon.
The county closed the library’s south exit in order to limit unrestricted access to the heavily-used restrooms, where folks not only relieve themselves, but occasionally bathe and sometimes steal rolls of toilet paper (the latter being an enforced and prosecutable crime).
The county also banned smoking on the library campus, making it a less desirable place for homeless smokers — of which there are many — to sit idly for long periods of time.
These actions and the recent vagrancy-related arrests have not benefited the homeless, but they have eased some of the pressure in the downtown area.
Inside the library, the homeless are treated the same as any other patron. Library manager Liz Nolan once told me that as long as they behave, the homeless have as much right to use the library and its resources as anyone else in the community — and like anyone else, if they act up they will be asked to leave or escorted outside by security. Multiple offenses can lead to a suspension of library privileges.
In addition to providing reprieve from heat, humidity, cold and inclement weather, the library provides computer access on a time-allotted basis. This allows the homeless to catch up on the news, research social services or areas of interest, do their social networking and communicate with friends or family. Many in the homeless community are avid readers and spend hours inside the library reading and not bothering a soul.
Sarasota’s homeless population is a population in constant flux. A recent Resurrection House report estimates a 36 percent annual turnover rate among clients, meaning more than a third of their clients move on from year to year — some escaping homelessness, some moving to other cities and some simply not receiving services any more.
Despite public perception, there are some homeless folks that live sober, law-abiding lives and express great faith in a higher power despite their lowly lot in life.
The homeless community is no different than any other: It consists of college grads and high school dropouts; saints and sinners; hard workers and lazy bums; drunks, druggies and teetotalers; kind souls and selfish criminals — in short, a microcosm of society as a whole, but with a higher rate of failure.
(To be continued … look for the final part of the “Day in the Life” homelessness series on Monday, Oct. 8.)