The director of a downtown bank wants the city of Sarasota to remove benches from City Hall.
In an email to city commissioners last week, Elaine Karins, president of the Sarasota Municipal Employees Credit Union, asked the city to remove two benches.
Karins said in an interview with the Sarasota Observer that bank customers began complaining last winter about homeless people who were asking for money as customers left the bank.
“I feel bad for them, but I don’t want my members to feel threatened,” Karins said.
Karins said that on some busier days, up to six customers will come into the credit union during lunch-time hours to tell bank workers that someone had asked for money as they left the ATM.
“They sit there and watch our ATM machine and everyone who uses the it,” Karins said.
But not everyone across the street has been acting in a way that worries customers at the credit union.
Cindy Edlund, a 56-year-old homeless woman who has been looking for work for the past two years, said the benches provide a relaxing place for her and her boyfriend to sit and read. They sometimes sit under a black umbrella on sunny days.
Karins said she knows Edlund and her boyfriend, and the credit union has not seen a problem with either of them.
“Those are (some of) the last of the benches,” Edlund said about the benches in front of City Hall.
Any decision regarding moving or relocating the benches would be made by city commissioners.
“It would be up to commission to take up that request,” said Marlon Brown, deputy city manager.
If commissioners discuss relocating the benches, an important question is whether relocating the benches will stop the issue of panhandling and fights that break out, Brown said.
“If we relocate those benches, it may solve the credit union’s problems, but it could just move the problem,” Brown said.
It is the more aggressive, often intoxicated people, who fight or cause problems at the benches, which are located beside City Hall and across from the Credit Union, which serves city and county employees.
From Sept. 24 to Oct. 24, 30 total arrests were made on First Street near City Hall involving the homeless population, said Sarasota Police Capt. Wade McVay.
The arrests range from illegal lodging to two battery arrests Oct. 20, but the majority of the arrests involves alcohol charges, such as disorderly intoxication, McVay said.
Police made 15 arrests during the same time period last year. At least three fights among the group who gathered by the benches have broken out during the past year.
One woman ran into the bank because she felt unsafe, Karins said. In another instance, a police officer conducting bank business on her lunch break arrested a homeless person for urinating on the building next door.
“We have heard from many of our members,” Karins said. “They are asked for money, and when they say no, the comment is made, ‘I know you have money. I saw you just use the machine.’”
In 2011, city commissioners voted to remove benches at Selby Five Points park after residents complained that the benches attracted transients and panhandlers and allowed them to congregate.
Tuesday afternoon, as Edlund spoke to the Sarasota Observer, two men who were sitting on one of the benches got into a dispute about how the city was handling the issue of homelessness downtown. The two men began yelling at each other.
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