The city and county have been playing a cat-and-mouse game over the selection of a downtown homeless shelter’s location since a national homelessness expert recommended such a facility in November.
When Sarasota County Director of Homeless Services Wayne Applebee began his report before the County Commission Tuesday on the status of the county’s homeless initiative, he initially had a lot of good news to report.
Applebee outlined the steps county staff has taken to implement recommendations proposed in November by homelessness expert Dr. Richard Marbut, who was commissioned by the county and the city of Sarasota to study the area’s homeless population.
According to Applebee, plans are moving forward on Marbut’s recommendations, including the creation of two family emergency crisis shelters.
But when Applebee got to the part of his report about the city of Sarasota’s search for the site of a downtown homeless shelter, his enthusiasm faded.
“I’m sorry … we can’t avoid this last section of my report,” Applebee conceded to commissioners, segueing into a contentious discussion that highlighted an ongoing spat between county and city commissioners about where such a facility should be located.
County commissioners, drawing on Marbut’s recommendations, are pushing for a “come as you are” homeless shelter to be built in downtown Sarasota and offered the city $500,000 for the project.
Some Sarasota city commissioners and administrators — notably Commissioners Susan Chapman and Suzanne Atwell and Vice Mayor Willie Shaw, as well as many downtown residents and business owners — are largely against such a move. They claim the presence of a homeless shelter downtown would likely attract more homeless to the area, diminish property values and increase crime.
“To think that out of all places in this county, 65 that were vetted, only three could be found and they happened to be in North Sarasota,” Shaw said at a Sarasota City Commission meeting Monday. “That’s ridiculous to think that that wasn’t preconceived … by powers that be … your intent was to put it in North Sarasota in the beginning.”
On Tuesday, county commissioners accused some Sarasota city commissioners and administrators — Chapman was the only one identified by name — of intentionally stalling the selection of a site for the downtown homeless shelter to ultimately block the project from being built.
“There is a clear path by the administration in the city to sabotage this process,” County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said. “It’s becoming a political football, and it’s just not proper. I think they’re insulting Dr. Marbut ... and they’re insulting the public.”
Barbetta ultimately threatened to pull county funding for the shelter if the city continues to dodge its selection of a site for the facility.
“I’m really getting fed up with this whole situation,” Barbetta said. “The city thinks they have this under control, and I’m tired of being beat up trying to help. We’re just running into a brick wall with the city ... it’s just a horrible situation.”
Other county commissioners echoed Barbetta’s frustration.
“It’s unfortunate that the conversation about a community problem has turned toxic,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said. “We’re heading down an ugly road.”
County commissioners Carolyn Mason and Nora Patterson, however, argued the City Commission’s opposition to the downtown homeless shelter was not unanimous, and there was still room left for a compromise.
“We shouldn’t categorize this as the will of the city,” Patterson said.
City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo acknowledged the split in opinion at Monday’s City Commission meeting.
“It is my understanding that the administration is fundamentally against having a shelter within the city limits,” Caragiulo said, “and I think that needs to be put on the record … there’s a sense that there’s a certain undermining going on.”
City commissioners said the originally proposed downtown Sarasota site at 1330 N. Osprey Ave. was unavailable until at least June 2015 because the parcel was needed as a staging area for a nearby deep-injection well construction project. According to Applebee’s memorandum, city staff reported exploring other city properties to serve as the staging area but claimed no other options were available.
County staff, however, subsequently recommended the city contact UPS about using its property at 1530 N. Osprey Ave. as a possible alternate staging area for the deep-injection well project.
Deputy Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown “indicated that the city would explore this option,” Applebee wrote in his report.
Applebee, however, eventually sidestepped the city of Sarasota to make a request directly to UPS on behalf of Sarasota County for use of its site for either staging equipment for the city’s injection well project or potentially as a permanent location for the proposed downtown shelter.
Applebee said Tuesday that the UPS property was not for sale, ruling it out as a possible alternate location for the shelter. The site could still be a possibility for the staging area, however, potentially freeing up the 1330 Osprey Ave. location for the shelter before 2015.
Applebee and Marbut also identified two other downtown locations that would be suitable for a shelter — 1011 and 1502 N. Lime Ave. Applebee said he is continuing to research the viability of those sites.
During Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Barbetta questioned Applebee about whether the proposed sites for the downtown shelter had failed their environmental assessments.
“There’s been no failure at this point,” Applebee said.
“On the record, last night Susan Chapman said that both sites had failed the environmental report,”
Barbetta replied, referring to Monday’s City Commission meeting.
At that meeting, referring to the proposed homeless shelter sites, Chapman said: “With regard to the sites — if the sites keep flunking environmental tests, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
As the City Commission remains divided on the subject of building a “Come as You Are” homeless shelter within the city, opponents are using the account of a Sarasota Police Department lieutenant as ammunition in the fight against the shelter.
At the March 3 City Commission meeting, Vice Mayor Willie Shaw invited Lt. Kevin Stiff to share his observations from visiting similar homeless shelters in San Antonio, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Most of his observations came from the Robert Marbut-designed Haven for Hope in San Antonio. Stiff said he informally polled 17 nearby business owners and residents, none of whom said the center has had a positive impact on the community.
Shelter opponents, such as Shaw and Commissioner Susan Chapman, have argued a homeless facility would be a burden on the city and serve as a magnet for regional transients. At Haven for Hope and Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix, Stiff reported a similar phenomenon.
“The manager (in Phoenix) feels the population is growing,” Stiff said. “They feel they’ve become a regional drop-off center.”
Stiff noted that he had no stance on whether the shelter should be built, and he also included recommendations for how to avoid the missteps of other facilities. In Phoenix, for example, the shelter manager said the group failed to properly communicate with the surrounding neighborhood; Stiff recommended holding regular community meetings in the area where the shelter is built to get feedback from residents.
Ultimately, Stiff said, the SPD will stand behind whatever the city decides is best.
“The police department is prepared to make whichever plan a success for the city,” Stiff said.
— David Conway
Contact Nolan Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org