The controversial downtown Sarasota homeless issue has stretched to the Sarasota County-operated Selby Library.
Downtown resident and radio host Phil Grande, whose frustration with the homeless led him in July to fund catered meals for transients in front of Vice Mayor Terry Turner’s residence, has made it known that the homeless have left a benchless Selby Five Points Park and taken over the nearby library.
Without both the city and the county working together to combat the transient issue, Grande says problems will continue downtown.
In a Sept. 5 email to the Sarasota County commissioners, Grande reported that the library is being used “as a homeless shelter.”
Grande noted that transients are hanging around outside the library, especially its entrance, on a daily basis and going inside frequently to use the restrooms.
That type of behavior, Grande pointed out, is not allowed under the county library’s patrons’ code of conduct.
That code states that the library should be used strictly for “selecting materials, reading, studying, researching and writing” and that personal hygiene procedures for patrons “shall conform to the community standards for public places.” Many of the transients who enter the library also do not adhere to the library’s dress code, he wrote.
Grande also questioned whether the homeless who come and go at the library are counted as daily visitors on the log used to determine the library’s annual budget, which is designed to reflect the level of patron usage.
“My (radio show) producers counted on average that 80% of the (daily visitors to the library) are vagrants (and only) 20% are real patrons,” Grande said. “It’s my opinion that librarians intentionally do not enforce their own code because if they did the library would be 80% empty.”
Grande told the Sarasota Observer the homeless issue at the library is both a city of Sarasota and a county issue and that it is related to how Five Points Park is operated.
“The problems with the library and park are one,” Grande said.
While Grande believes the removal of the park benches three months ago started the problem, he said the library has been serving as a haven for some time for homeless people needing to use a bathroom or to cool off from the outdoor heat.
Grande met with interim Sarasota County Administrator Terry Lewis this week. Lewis is investigating the issue, including undertaking a review of the library’s code of conduct.
Lewis told the Sarasota Observer he also would meet with Sarasota Police Department officers who focus on the homeless issues downtown, and he planned to make sporadic visits to the library himself within the next week to observe the situation and talk with the staff.
“I believe the county should hold back on all further funding for the library until they revisit the patron code of conduct for the library,” Grande said.
Grande also hopes the city and the county will work together in the future to resolve the issues facing the Five Points Park area.
If the homeless issue at the library could be controlled better, Grande said, the downtown area near Central Avenue would thrive even more.
“The question everyone needs to ask is whether or not the downtown area is better now than it was when the benches were installed there,” Grande said. “There’s no question that if you poll the residents and business owners of the downtown area, which are directly affected, the answer would be a resounding, yes.”
Grande also pointed out that hundreds of benches still exist around downtown, adding that more than 100 seats alone are near the bayfront, and they are mostly unused.
Vice Mayor Terry Turner, meanwhile, also believes the homeless issue revolving around the library and Selby Five Points Park deserves a joint city/county focus. Lewis’ commitment to meet with the Sarasota Police Department also confirms that the county plans to work with the city on the issue, Turner said.
“It’s not just a county issue,” said Turner. “This really affects the city.”