You’ve know there’s a problem when the mayor of your city tells her police department and fellow commissioners she “doesn’t feel comfortable walking downtown anymore” because of a growing homeless population.
That’s exactly what Mayor Suzanne Atwell did Monday night at the Sarasota City Commission’s regular meeting.
Atwell and the rest of the commission made it known they are fed up with a homeless population that hovers around Selby Five Points Park and the Selby Public Library.
Atwell, an avid walker, said she doesn’t walk that area anymore because she’s worried of running into aggressive panhandlers.
“This has reached a whole new level,” Atwell said. “When you have this type of behavior in your city, you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.”
Last week, the Sarasota Observer reported on the new group of homeless people downtown that’s drawn the ire of downtown residents, business owners and pedestrians. The group of roughly 40 people, estimated to be in their 20s, has been walking downtown, sticking close to First Street, for the last couple of months. The group congregates under an overhang at the Selby Library on a daily basis.
Worries about the group reached a new level last month, when Tsunami Sushi & Hibachi Grill owner/manager Johnny Chen was attacked with silverware by a young homeless man who became irate when Chen told him the restaurant was closed and that he couldn’t use the restroom.
Sarasota Police Lt. Randy Boyd attributed the increase in the homeless population to a suspension in the city’s trespass program.
The town’s former code was not in compliance with a recent federal appeals court ruling in a case that challenged the constitutionality of the city of St. Petersburg’s trespass warning ordinance.
In May, City Attorney Robert Fournier instituted a suspension of the verbal trespass warnings while the ordinance was amended to include a written warning that gives violators seven days to appeal their warning at the police station.
Changes were instituted to bring the program into compliance, and, as of last week, enforcement was back in place. Officers told commissioners they are aware of the problem and have also reinstituted an officer transient coordinator position for 90 days to work exclusively with the homeless-loitering issue and to stay in touch with worried residents and business owners.
A camera in Five Points Park is also being adjusted to monitor problems more closely, and Fournier will meet with Sarasota County officials to come to a better understanding of how homeless people loitering at the library can be combated.
Interim City Manager Terry Lewis has also instructed the police command staff to walk downtown for two weeks to see the issues firsthand.
Commissioner Shannon Snyder urged all parties to come to an agreement with the county to stop allowing panhandling and loitering around the library, which is the new epicenter of the problem.
“Hell would freeze over before the county would allow this to happen in Jacaranda,” Snyder said. “Maybe we should get a van and take these people down to the Jacaranda Library and see what they do about it. These people are leading a lifestyle we don’t support here, and it’s time we stand up and say we want it gone.”
Snyder also suggested the police transient coordinator position might need to be a permanent one.
“We will have a new police chief and a new city manager soon and they need to know this won’t be tolerated,” Snyder said.