The Sarasota Ministerial Association has approached city officials, seeking to become a facilitator among Selby Five Points Park area residents and business leaders and groups feeding the homeless in the park.
Sarasota Ministerial Association President and Goodwill Industries of Sarasota Chaplain Tom Pfaff said his organization would hold two separate, independent meetings this fall to address the issue.
One meeting will be held with city residents and merchants to address how the homeless feedings in the park have disrupted the community. The other meeting will be held with area churches and associations that have held feedings in the park.
Downtown residents object to the large number of homeless who loiter in the park after the feedings, saying the homeless begin drinking, doing drugs, fighting and panhandling.
Pfaff noted that in 2001, the Sarasota Ministerial Association was formed to address concerns residents and business owners had with groups feeding the homeless in their community. “We were able to bring together both the merchants and providers of food,” Pfaff said. “Just like then, this is an opportunity for everyone to talk about the best way to have the downtown thrive while caring for the community at the same time.”
Pfaff approached Mayor Suzanne Atwell and City Manager Bob Bartolotta in July to discuss the concept. It’s the goal of the Sarasota Ministerial Association to report back to the Sarasota City Commission by the end of the year with its findings.
“Of course, we have a heart for the caring of anyone in need, but we also want merchants to thrive and the residents to enjoy the beauty we have here in this city,” Pfaff said. “We clearly have resources to help the homeless in an organized way that doesn’t create collateral damage.”
One of the topics that could be discussed at the meetings with both groups is whether it’s necessary to continue feedings in the park.
“There are those that think they should open up shop there and feed the homeless and there are those that think we should be supporting local shelters in the area that already feed the homeless,” Pfaff said.
Sandy Gallagher, manager of St. Martha Catholic Church’s Bethesda House, said an argument could be made that enough places already exist where the homeless can be fed downtown.
“For instance, people can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at the Salvation Army every day,” Gallagher said. “A discussion needs to be had about where downtown should put its focus on homeless feedings.”
City leaders say they were happy to discuss the issue with the Sarasota Ministerial Association, that they welcome the group’s involvement with open arms.
“The goal is to get Five Points residents and business owners involved,” Atwell said. “Holding faith-based meetings about how to work together is a great way to begin moving in the proper direction.”
Bartolotta agreed. “They really just want to be a facilitator and bring the sides together in a meaningful way,” he said. “They have no agenda except to bring the divergent opinions together. That’s a good thing.”
March 28 — A petition drive led by Phil Grande urges the modification of a city ordinance that allows groups of up to 75 people to gather on city property without obtaining a special permit.
May 19 — The city approves the removal of five benches in Selby Five Points Park.
May 23 — Two-dozen demonstrators protest the removal of the benches.
June — City approves a tobacco ban at all city parks.
June 20 — Tempers flare over the feedings issue at a City Commission meeting.
July 11, July 12 and July 15 — Grande organized bus rides for the homeless to be fed in front of Vice Mayor Terry Turner's home.