Chuck Maydwell lives on the streets of Sarasota. Recently, he’s been feeling targeted by police. Sitting last week in the shade provided by the Whole Foods building on Lemon Avenue, he talked about how officers tell him he can’t sit on the sidewalk and how one of his friends was just arrested for sleeping outside City Hall.
But the 62-year-old, out-of-work carpenter and Vietnam veteran acknowledges that some of the younger homeless people in the city are more aggressive than others and draw the attention of law enforcement to the homeless population.
“There are some bad apples,” Maydwell says.
Sometimes he wants to call 911 on some members of this group.
“They’re young people,” says Byron Edgerton, another homeless man sitting beside Maydwell and trying to stay out of the afternoon heat.
Edgerton said he, too, has seen his share of police attention recently, including an encounter he had two days prior that resulted in his receiving a citation for having an open beer. But, mostly, he just tries to lie low.
Police are making more frequent arrests as part of an operation to identify and control an aggressive faction of Sarasota’s downtown homeless population. Sarasota police have made 108 arrests downtown over the past two months, but the two men sitting on the sidewalk along Lemon Avenue are not part of the group about which police officials are most concerned.
During the past few weeks, police have indentified what they call the “Top 20,” a most-wanted of the most aggressive and violent of the homeless population.
Officers are focused on this group of 20 people who repeatedly break the law — the ones business owners and residents on repeatedly call the police about.
“It has nothing to do with their economic background,” Sarasota Police Lt. Randy Boyd said about recent police operations. “If you are here to enjoy our downtown, you are free to enjoy our downtown, whether you are homeless or a millionaire. If someone is breaking the law, we are not going to tolerate that.”
Boyd described one of the homeless men on the “Top 20” list, a man arrested 200 times in the state, including two arrests for aggravated battery, two arrests for burglary, three arrests for possession of a firearm, three arrests for the sale of narcotics and twice for battery on a law-enforcement officer. The same man was also arrested on charges of sexual battery on a victim under the age of 12.
Another of the “Top 20” was arrested 41 times on warrants in Pennsylvania and Florida, including five times for disorderly conduct and other arrests for having a concealed weapon, burglary and possession of cocaine.
“These are the individuals who are causing problems in our downtown,” Boyd said. “We are not going to tolerate it. They are holding hostage downtown.”
The list has taken shape over the past few weeks, as police have indentified those people who are in constant contact with police.
“They are criminals,” Boyd said. “We sugarcoat it too much.”
Along with ramped-up police patrols, the city has installed one camera downtown and plans to install another to help them curb the problems associated with the troublesome crowd of homeless people. Officers downtown are also working later shifts to address crimes that happen at night.
Boyd said increased vigilance has netted the increase in arrests.
“It’s just steady enforcement,” Boyd said. “Letting them know we won’t tolerate their crimes.”
Some advocates of the homeless have called the city’s approach too narrow-sighted.
Richard Martin, former mayor and executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, said he supports police efforts to arrest those who are breaking the law. But he worries that the overall conversation is simply linking homelessness to crime and that the city is not focusing enough on programs to help find safe housing and employment for the homeless who have given up on finding work.
“We’re doing the same old, same old,” Martin said.
Others say the police department is just doing its job to keep downtown a place where residents and tourists want to go.
Some storeowners think the police aren’t doing enough. And panhandling is not the worst part, said Eileen Wallace, owner of Write On Sarasota on First Street.
“My staff is fearful,” said Wallace. “They go out in pairs because I don’t want them going out alone.”
Wallace said the problems associated with the homeless presence have hurt business for many store owners over the past few months. She recalls how one customer, downtown to pick out wedding invitations, was scared after a group panhandling outside the Whole Foods garage asked her for money and, then, moments later, the men blocked her from entering another store by lying in front of the door.
“She just gave up and left,” Wallace said. “She said, ‘Maybe I’ll have my husband come later,’ and she left.”
Tom Mannausa, a downtown property owner, wrote an email Sept. 1 to city commissioners after a construction contractor could not access a building because two homeless were sleeping against the front door. In that email, Mannausa said the problems seemed to be getting worse.
But in an interview a month later, Mannausa, who owns the Main Street building and whose tenants include Sports Page Bar & Grille, said it seems like the number of homeless who are congregating downtown and panhandling has decreased.
Mannausa said he understands both sides of the issue and that it is a fine line for police officers to enforce laws. Mannausa also said he thinks programs such as housing assistance is also something the city should be working on.
“It is a very unique matter the city fathers have to work on, because, one, we have to all be compassionate and, two, we have to be fair and reasonable,” Mannausa said.
Mannausa appreciates the increased police presence downtown.
“The police department has been able to allocate its police officers to better perserve the integrity of downtown, which makes it better for the merchants and residents downtown,” Mannausa said. “That’s important whether it’s Chicago or downtown Sarasota.”
The larger issues
A 2011 Council on Homelessness report found that Florida has the third-highest number of persons living on its streets or in emergency shelters in the U.S. That number has increased because of the tough economy.
City commissioners have requested that police officials give twice-monthly updates on the progress being made with the homeless people who are breaking the law.
But advocates for the homeless say the larger issue of homelessness has been left out of the discussion.
“If it is criminality in the downtown, that is as offensive as anything,” Martin said. “I want people to feel free to go there and enjoy downtown.”
But Martin said there are other aspects of homelessness, such as wounded warriors or people who need help finding jobs or employment training, that need to be addressed through intervention and are largely being ignored in Sarasota.
Larry Settles is one of many of the homeless who has been trying to find a job. The last time he went to the employment center, he said out of about 100 job seekers, only three found work. Settles, a construction worker, is now living on the street and has given up looking for work.
While other communities use social workers to reach out to the homeless and get them into mental-health counseling or housing programs, Sarasota is relying too much on law enforcement, Martin said.
“Asheville (N.C.) reduced its homelessness by 75% by working with the public housing authority, and Miami has been working on a program for 12 years to get people off the streets,” Martin said. “The restaurants and downtown merchants (in Miami) were pretty happy about it.”
Some programs, such as the one in Miami, implement a tax that funds housing, while other communities such as Daytona Beach implement employment training.
“So, I get pretty frustrated when here all we talk about is sweeping it under the rug,” Martin said.
One new program in Sarasota called Street Teams is an example of what Martin thinks can get to the heart of the homeless issue. During the past few months, the Street Teams program has secured employment for about 10 homeless people.
“Those are the kind of things that work in a productive way,” Martin said.