Recent changes in the scale and geographic footprint of homelessness in Sarasota County indicate that the area’s homeless population has hit “critical mass.”
“There is a steady flow of homeless into the area,” said Dr. Richard Marbut, an expert Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota hired to study the combined area’s homelessness problem and propose a solution. “What’s changed is that now you’ve hit a critical mass and the problem is more in your face.”
A study released last week by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness reported that the county’s homeless population has increased by 40% since 2011. That data, along with a Sheriff’s Office report linking a series of Siesta Key burglaries to a small band of homeless people recently arrested on the island, and other law-enforcement anecdotes about homeless camps popping up countywide, has raised questions about whether homelessness is spreading and from where the new arrivals are coming.
Marbut argued that the area’s homeless population is not expanding in size or reach any faster than normal. He attributed the anecdotal reports of new homeless camps around the county to the passing of a tipping point where overcrowding at existing encampments forces individuals into urban and residential areas, creating the perception of a spike in the homeless population’s size and geographic scope.
“It’s like pouring water into a pitcher,” Marbut said. “Eventually you run out of room and water will spill out. That’s what you’re seeing now. There’s no more room in the encampments, and now the population is spreading — making it much more visible.”
Marbut added that September’s heavy rainfall led to flooding at some of the larger encampments, displacing homeless groups normally confined to specific areas and potentially creating a false impression of spiking numbers and geographic shifts.
“A lot of the encampments got flooded,” Marbut said. “You see people coming in to the city and other urban areas more because of the rain, and it makes them more visible.”
Area law-enforcement personnel, however, reported that homeless camps are sprouting up countywide; an indication, they said, that the homeless population is definitely growing and not as confined to the city of Sarasota as it once was.
“We’re constantly seeing a spread in the homeless population around the county,” said Sarasota Police Officer David Dubendorf, the department’s homeless liaison officer. “The problem is growing.”
Bill Spitler, director of planning and research for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, said new homeless camps have been reported along Laurel Road, Bee Ridge Road, Fruitville Road and on Siesta Key.
“They’re clearly not concentrated in downtown Sarasota anymore,” Spitler said. “We now have camps through Sarasota County — it’s a new trend.”
Spitler said sufficient data do not exist to determine whether the perceived geographic spread of homelessness has resulted in an increase in homeless-connected crimes.
Sarasota Sheriff Sgt. Scott Osbourne said that a series of burglaries this month along Beach Road on Siesta Key fit the modus operandi of homeless-related crime.
Osbourne said the burglaries, which involved items such as bicycles and TVs, may be connected to a small band of homeless people, thought to have been sleeping on Siesta Beach, who were recently arrested on Siesta Key on charges ranging from open-container violations to soliciting money.
Homeless crimes are unusual on Siesta Key, Osbourne explained, adding that most incidents involve transient individuals who are not native to the area and rarely stay on the island for long.
“The transient ones are always the problem,” Osbourne said. “There’s no telling where they’re from.”
Despite law-enforcement anecdotes, survey data suggest the county’s homeless population is still largely confined to the city of Sarasota. According to the Suncoast Partnership’s report, 85% of the county’s homeless live within the city limits, and about 65% live within the city proper. About half of homeless-related crimes occur with city limits, according to Sheriff’s Office data.
Dubendorf was skeptical about the Suncoast Partnership’s numbers. He believes the overall population estimates were at least 10% to 20% low.
Marbut agreed that the data are inconclusive.
“The population hasn’t been accurately surveyed in the past, so it’s difficult to measure trends,” Marbut said. “Some of the recently reported increases are just because of better sampling.”
It is clear, however, Sarasota County is an attractive destination for transients immigrating from other counties and states.“I constantly see new faces,” Dubendorf said, adding that he has encountered individuals from states such as Michigan, Arkansas, Wyoming, Illinois, Texas and Colorado.
Based on a recent Salvation Army study, Dubendorf estimated Sarasota’s per capita transient homeless population to be about 3.5 times the average of similar municipalities. “They come from all over the U.S.,” Dubendorf said. “There’s a running joke that everyone ends up in Sarasota eventually.”
Marbut said the migration of homeless into Sarasota County is nothing new and parallels a statewide trend.
“The homeless don’t go to Wisconsin or Michigan in the wintertime,” Marbut said, explaining why Florida has seen a 20% increase in its homeless population in the last several years.
Spitler said there were unconfirmed reports of Sarasota being touted as a highly desirable place to live on Internet forums that homeless individuals use to plan their next move. “The homeless use the Internet, too,” he said. “They know they can panhandle with no consequences here, and word got out that this is better than any other place they’ve been.”
“Other neighboring counties want them to come here,” Dubendorf said. “Sarasota is just such an enabling area. It’s so easy to be homeless here.”
Marbut said government-run services were not to blame for the area’s allure.
“Sarasota does not actually have a service-rich environment,” Marbut argued. “But Sarasota is off the charts on the enabling side. Not tying food and services to some program to graduate people from the streets is the most enabling thing you can do. ”
Dubendorf echoed Marbut’s assessment. “We give free food with no expectation that they’ll do anything to earn it,” he said. “They have no incentive to change.”
Of course, Marbut added, the same traits that make Sarasota County an attractive destination for tourists also make it a popular destination for the transient homeless.
“When you have palm trees and beaches, there will always be an inbound flow of homeless to the area,” Marbut said. “But if they know that they have to work here, they will just keep on moving.”
Contact Nolan Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org