Paraphrasing a statement dating back to biblical times, President Jimmy Carter once said, “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens.”
If that’s the case, then we in Sarasota still have work to do when it comes to addressing homelessness in our city.
Homelessness is one of the most complex and emotionally-charged issues facing local politicians, business owners and the residents of the community. Opinions run the gamut from wanting to run the homeless out of town to getting behind efforts to provide more shelter for those in need.
Having lived paycheck-to-paycheck for most of my life, I take a more sympathetic view of homelessness, yet I respect the concerns of the business community in regard to not wanting homeless folks loitering outside their place of business because it makes customers nervous, which can negatively impact business.
I have a friend who lives in Lakewood Ranch. Last spring he and his wife brought some out-of-town visitors downtown to have dinner at Patrick’s, in their new location next to Mattison’s City Grille. When they walked up to Patrick’s they encountered Ian, the homeless man who at that time regularly spread his blanket and belongings on the sidewalk and stayed there for the better part of the day. My friend and his companions found the sight of a homeless man in front of a downtown eatery so troubling that it caused them to have second thoughts about a return visit.
While I don’t share my friend’s view that a homeless person is a troubling sight, I do think it serves as a good example of the difficult relationship that exists between the business community and the homeless community. While business owners may sympathize with the plight of the homeless, that sympathy disintegrates when the behavior of the homeless impacts a business owner’s bottom line.
This has been an ongoing story in downtown Sarasota, and these two factions have been in the news again of late. During the Aug. 20 Sarasota City Commission meeting, commissioners discussed and reacted to numerous complaints from business owners about an increase in “aggressive behavior” among the homeless in Five Points Park and the downtown area. There was also mention of a recent influx of shirtless young homeless men, believed to be new to town, displaying “aggressive behavior” when panhandling and interacting with passers-by. The discussion ended with unanimous commission support for stricter enforcement of the city’s panhandling and vagrancy laws.
“Book ‘Em Dano”
At the Sept. 4 City Commission meeting, representatives of the Sarasota Police Department reported that 55 arrests had been made in the Five Points Park area in the wake of the commission request. Eight arrests were for illegal lodging, 10 for open containers, two for disorderly intoxication, one for panhandling, one for burglary and so on …
During that same period, the city’s Street Crimes Unit conducted undercover operations downtown that resulted in 24 additional arrests, including nine smoking violations, two open container arrests, “several” drug arrests, two warrant arrests and three traffic citations; and the police department continues its “zero tolerance” policy in regard to sleeping in public places.
Commissioners were pleased with the results, but distressed to learn from Lieutenant Randy Boyd that arrests for blocking a sidewalk or public space could not be made because of deficiencies in the language of City Ordinance 30-3 that make the “crime” not prosecutable.
As the ordinance currently stands, the sidewalk or public space must be completely blocked and preventing pedestrian or vehicular traffic before an arrest can be made. At the request of commissioners, City Attorney Bob Fournier is now re-working Ordinance 30-3 in an effort to craft stronger legal language that will allow police to make arrests for partially blocking a sidewalk or public space.
Public reaction to the vagrancy arrests was mixed. Downtown Sarasota Alliance Chair John Harshman said, “The DSA supports the efforts of the city staff and the city police department to help achieve the goal of a clean and safe downtown, just as we support the efforts of the many service providers who work hard to make a positive impact on the bigger issue of homelessness.”
Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Eric Ernst called the police crackdown “heartless” and suggested that the city is taking a “backward approach” when dealing with the homeless.
Local resident Diane Walsh said, “Arresting a vagrant does not do away with the problem and it is not the solution. Homelessness is a huge issue all over the country, not just in Sarasota. I always look at a homeless person and say this could be me; but by the grace of God it is not. I believe we should work together to find a solution, but ideas can only become reality when people want to solve the issue.”
Homeless advocate Ali Kleber also objected to the recent wave of arrests: “I know one gentleman who was arrested and fined $293 for putting on his shoe in front of the library,” she said. “Give me a break … Isn’t our court system jammed up and busy enough? Does a homeless man have $293?” Kleber added, questioning the logic of arresting people that have no money to pay fines and court costs.
Some of those arrested will likely fail to show up for court, resulting in additional legal problems, and having these criminal charges on their record only makes it harder to find a job or rent an apartment.
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, it costs about $40 a day to incarcerate a person in a local jail, not including court costs or the cost of the time salaried police officers dedicate to arresting folks for relatively minor crimes.
In 2010, the Department of Urban Housing and Development estimated that it costs $799 a month to house a homeless person in an emergency shelter, which amounts to approximately $26 per day. According to my math, it costs taxpayers $14 a day more to incarcerate a homeless person than it does to provide emergency shelter. Does that add up?
Thursday afternoon I took a walk through Five Points Park and Main Street. Public opinion aside, it seems like the recent police actions have succeeded in “cleaning up” the area. I saw one person who didn’t appear to be homeless sitting on a blanket in Five Points Park. She was the only person in the vicinity — not surprising now that Five Points is an inactive city park due to commissioners’ previous bone-headed decision to remove the park benches in order to ward off the homeless.
Walking downtown, I saw a few homeless people sitting peacefully on benches just outside the Selby Library, with a nearby security guard keeping close watch. I saw a few backpack-clad wanderers moving from place to place, but Ian was not in his usual spot in front of Mattison’s and the sidewalks were clear of stationary homeless folks.
The only exception was Charles, a longtime local street musician, who sat strumming his acoustic guitar by an empty storefront next to Sarasota Hardware. I asked Charles if he’d been hassled by the police lately and he said he had not been. He said he knows the police and they know him. Although Charles will accept donations for his musical performances, he does not actively panhandle or harass those that pass by.
When the newly revised Ordinance 30-3 goes into effect, street musicians like Charles will probably also disappear from our city landscape. Some people will call that progress, but I call that regression. What’s wrong with a little music on the streets?
These recent issues only reinforce my long-held opinion that the real solution to homelessness is not chasing away or arresting the homeless, but encouraging our elected leaders, business leaders, civic organizations and citizens to work harder and to work together to get a homeless shelter and service campus built somewhere in north Sarasota County.
This would give homeless folks a place to call home and a place to receive social services, which would make them less likely to “loiter” in public places.
If you want the homeless out of Five Points Park and downtown Sarasota, you have to provide somewhere else for them to go. To me, this seems like a win-win solution for all involved.
[To be continued …]
- Joe Hendricks plays the drums for Ted Stevens and the Doo-Shots and hosts a local talk show on community radio.