Along with Sarasota County, the city hired Robert Marbut in August to provide his insights on how to deal with the region’s homelessness issues. Marbut has yet to make a recommendation, but some people are already questioning the value of those insights.
Vice Mayor Willie Shaw and Commissioner Susan Chapman believe a facility designed to serve the county, and to address a regional problem, is a burden that shouldn’t be placed on one municipality.
“It needs to be located in a point that’s accessible regionally,” Chapman said. “I do not favor a site that is in downtown Sarasota, or near downtown.”
At Monday’s commission meeting, she said it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Marbut would recommend a facility in the city. She said the criteria he outlined almost necessitated it — specifically, that the shelter be near existing service agencies and the downtown county jail.
Chapman believes there are other factors to be considered. She visited Pinellas Safe Harbor, a low-demand shelter in Clearwater that Marbut helped establish, in September. Its location, almost 10 miles from downtown Clearwater, was proof Marbut could justify building a shelter outside of a city, she said.
Furthermore, she said the program coordinator told her the shelter’s distance from an urban core — and its negative peer influences — was an essential part of its success.
Zach Haisch, a sergeant with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office and the program coordinator at Pinellas Safe Harbor, said that’s “kind of” what he said.
“What I said is, the location doesn’t matter,” Haisch said. “If you build it, they will come.”
Haisch did say the success of Pinellas Safe Harbor is, in part, due to the distance from a downtown area, but he believes the passion of service providers is a crucial factor. Regardless of the facility’s location, he said, they’ll help.
The Pinellas shelter is almost equidistant from Clearwater and St. Petersburg, two cities with populations of more than 100,000. Haisch said the two are easily the biggest contributors to Safe Harbor’s population.
At Monday’s meeting, Shaw made it clear he would not support a homeless facility in the North Sarasota district he represents. Later in the meeting, eight people who work or live in the district supported Shaw’s stance.
County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said it would be unfortunate if infighting derailed Marbut’s work. He said nobody on either commission has the credentials to reject Marbut’s recommendations at this point.
City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo also questioned the relevance of a fight about Marbut’s efforts thus far. He said any mention of North Sarasota sites was because they most closely matched the factors outlined. If there are sites in his district that could serve as a shelter, he said he’s eager to consider it.
Caragiulo also said Marbut shouldn’t feel any political pressure in the course of his work.
“(The commission) has to decide politically,” Caragiulo said. “Why should he, the consultant, be involved in politics?”
Marbut said Sarasota residents must get beyond the instinct to be NIMBYs — people who, upon hearing about a potential shelter, respond “not in my backyard.”
“The cities that get stuck in NIMBYism don’t move forward,” Marbut said.
Chapman indicated she believes Marbut has gotten involved politically. At Monday’s meeting she read a list of unanswered questions she had for Marbut, and afterward said she believes he’s purposefully been more responsive to other people.
“I think he has aligned himself with certain factions,” Chapman said. “I don’t think he’s considering all the factors.”
City Manager Tom Barwin sent an email Tuesday to Marbut suggesting a more centrally located facility could be more appropriate for the county. Barwin said Sarasota has borne an undue burden for a city of its size in offering homeless resources.
Barwin acknowledged Marbut’s expertise, but said the specific characteristics of Sarasota should be considered in his process.
“We’ve got to marry his expertise on this particular issue with our expertise in terms of the geography, the community and the challenge that’s here,” Barwin said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]