The Sarasota Police Department is developing a program it hopes will address issues associated with gatherings of homeless people in public places — while acknowledging that those groups are not necessarily violating any laws.
The SPD began developing a Homeless Outreach Team after city and county staff visited San Diego on a national tour of homeless shelters. In San Diego, the Homeless Outreach Team is the city’s initial point of contact with chronic homeless, and it seeks to link them with service providers, according to the city’s website.
As the county and city discuss the possible construction of a regional homeless shelter, speakers at City Commission meetings have asked about issues caused by those who remain on the street. Residents and business owners near Five Points Park, Pineapple Park and J.D. Hamel Park have spoken out about problems stemming from large gatherings of transients.
The conversation regarding the shelter is ongoing, but, for now, the city and SPD are focusing on a two-prong approach to tackle issues caused by groups of vagrants.
“We attempt to proactively enforce our codes and laws, and, in addition, the police department is in the process of implementing its Homeless Outreach Team effort,” City Manager Tom Barwin said.
Officer David Dubendorf, the SPD’s homeless liaison, and Sgt. Lori Jarress lead that effort. The Homeless Outreach Team is partnering with service organizations such as the Salvation Army by bringing members from those groups into the field to communicate with the homeless and offer services.
Jarress and Dubendorf acknowledged that a contingent of the homeless population shows little or no interest in working with those groups. With few options outside of making arrests — and restrictions on when an arrest can be made — Jarress said the Homeless Outreach Team has to push through any resistance.
“All we can do is keep going out there and planting the seed,” Jarress said.
The group visited Pineapple Park with representatives from the Salvation Army and Resurrection House at the end of February. Although a group of about 30 people had congregated at the park, the results were underwhelming.
“Mostly everybody there knew about the services,” Jarress said. “Only one said they would think about going to the Salvation Army.”
Still, the group is committed to the initiative. “If we’re going out there once a week, twice a week, maybe it’ll kick them in the butt to get some services,” Dubendorf said. “Maybe we’ll wear them down.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected].