This is the first in a three-part series that looks at how Sarasota's homeless spend their days, and what agencies and organizations are assisting our displaced population.
Looking beyond the recent City Commission request that resulted in 79 vagrancy-related arrests, let’s look at who the homeless are and what’s being done to assist them.
In Sarasota, it's primarily religious organizations and charitable citizens, not local government, that take the lead in assisting the homeless, although the city and the county both contribute substantial financial resources to the efforts.
A typical day for a homeless person starts early, often waking up at sunrise to avoid detection by police or property owners after a night of makeshift sleeping arrangements or covert camping in a wooded area.
Then it's off to breakfast at The Salvation Army at the corner of 10th Street and Central Avenue. Built in 2003 after extensive research in regard to finding the most effective location, The Center of Hope serves 250,000 meals a year to the homeless and low-income folks living on the fringe of homelessness.
According to General Manager Bryan Pope (the “bean-counter"), the Center of Hope provides 600 to 700 free meals per day, serving three meals a day 365 days a year at an annual cost of $2 million, with only $250,000 of those costs covered by government funding. The Salvation Army is a religious organization and Center of Hope operations are funded primarily by the Protestant religious organization it springs from --- including the new church and community center on Tuttle Avenue that is not directly affiliated with providing homeless services.
The remaining funds come from charitable donations, grants and community supporters. All Faiths Food Bank is a major provider of food supplies, and without them the feeding challenges would be far greater.
Next Stop on the Trail
After breakfast, many homeless folks walk a half-mile south over to Resurrection House, the invaluable day resource center for the homeless at 507 Kumquat Avenue.
Founded in 1989 and supported by a coalition of six local churches and generous Sarasota residents, Resurrection House is open from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. and serves as a day haven for the homeless community.
Free services include showers, laundry service, clothing, medical care, legal advice, assistance getting an I.D., storage lockers, bicycle repairs, access to discounted $8 monthly SCAT bus passes, mail and phone services, assistance making contact with family members, social service referrals, counseling, snacks and light meals and daytime shelter from the elements.
These sound like such basic things, but for the homeless a place to shower and have their laundry done is so important, and so appreciated.
Equally as important, Resurrection House provides the displaced with a sense of community. A person can sit there and drink a cup of coffee, read a book or the morning paper or converse with friends (often about job prospects --- real or imagined). People can also sit on the covered, fenced-in back porch and smoke cigarettes.
Despite the occasional emotional flare-ups, there is a sense of “taking care of our own” among the homeless, and this is on display daily at Resurrection House.
Resurrection House receives no government funding, which provides greater decision-making freedom. The funding comes from local churches and private donations in the form of money, clothing and supplies.
Despite an eight percent increase in clients served in 2011, the organization trimmed their annual operating costs from $340,271 in 2010 to $278,357 in 2011 --- an 18 percent reduction.
I spent one day on the streets a couple years ago while doing research for a radio show. I posed as a homeless person and signed up for services at Resurrection House and a free evening meal at The Salvation Army.
Being homeless sucks, but the staff and volunteers of these two organizations are as kind and humane as you could possibly hope for. They are a credit to our community.
Later, I spent two months volunteering as a Resurrection House data-entry clerk, working one four-hour shift per week, joining the 200-plus volunteers who make it possible for the non-profit organization to keep its operating costs in check.
Spend some time around the homeless, and you just may change your perception as to who and what they are. You may also become overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude that you are not standing in their shoes.
What’s the Plan?
The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness' “2011 Data for Community Report” indicates that 1,242 people in Sarasota and Manatee Counties meet the “community definition of homeless” --- a figure that includes people temporarily staying with friends and relatives, living in their cars or moving from temporary residence to temporary residence.
Suncoast was the lead organization behind the 2011 creation of the Step Up 10-year plan to end homelessness. This is an ambitious five-point plan that focuses on:
1. Streamlining the intake process and improving communication of homeless data in order to avoid redundancy of services.
2. Meeting the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness by raising awareness about homelessness, connecting the homeless with social services, identifying or building emergency shelters based on the Housing First model, developing additional daytime homeless facilities and building a one-stop day center in south Sarasota County. (County Commissioners pledged $800,000 to these south county efforts but the one-stop center remains on hold due to a lack of additional funding.)
3. Developing countywide intervention and prevention programs to identify and stabilize housing for families at risk, with a focus on creating more affordable housing --- something that is much easier said than done.
4. Using proactive, cost-effective housing strategies to move individuals and households toward permanent housing. This would be accomplished by increasing emergency housing, transitional housing, permanent housing and subsidized housing for homeless individuals, families and those at risk of becoming homeless.
5. Cultivating economic stability by creating steps toward self-sufficiency, permanent housing and financial stability. This includes improved access to job skills training, increased employment opportunities and attempting to break the cycle of poverty that keeps folks trapped in homelessness.
On paper, the Step Up plan contains some wonderful ideas and many devoted community servants and homeless advocates participated in its creation, but critics feel the plan may be too ambitious and far-reaching, and skeptics question whether the funding will ever materialize to make the plan a reality.
At the time, there does not seem to be much political will or available funding to support the most ambitious elements of the plan that call for the construction of more shelters and additional affordable housing.
To the city’s credit, Sarasota City Commissioners continue to allocate city funds (some through federal and county grants) that help fund 1,059 (77 percent) of the 1,360 public housing units in all of Sarasota County. These city-funded efforts help the Sarasota Housing Authority prevent many people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The City of Sarasota’s Office of Housing and Community Development provided $24,000 to the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness for homeless management information system (HMIS) tracking software, and the city hosts a weekly focus group for the homeless and those working to address homelessness issues. The meetings take place every third Tuesday of the month at City Hall, from 2 to 4 p.m. The public is invited to participate.
Who are the homeless?
According to Resurrection House’s 2012 Annual Report, the nonprofit, faith-based organization has 3,051 active clients, including 1,096 newly registered clients in 2011. Twenty-four percent of these new registered clients consisted of 261 families caring for children. Women and children are the fastest growing demographic among the homeless.
In 2011, 40 percent of the new clients were women and 60 percent were men. Of the 3,051 total active clients served in 2011, some of whom have been receiving services for many years, 68 percent of those served were men. Seven percent of the new clients were veterans.
Seventy-seven percent of new clients were Caucasian, 18 percent were African-American and less than one percent were Hispanic or Asian.
Client visits for the year totaled 50,718, with about 200 people a day passing through the Resurrection House doors --- some on a daily basis, some on a weekly basis and some on a more irregular basis.
The causes of homelessness include mental illness, injuries, accidents and other physical conditions, addiction and substance abuse, domestic violence, failed marriages and domestic partnerships, the death of a spouse, criminal activity and incarceration, the lack of a family support system, unexpected lay-offs, poor financial planning, lack of personal responsibility and unforeseen life changes. And yes, there are some folks that are simply too lazy to find work.
More than half of Resurrection House's clients have high school degrees and/or at least one year of college. Of the health issues reported by new clients, 64 percent suffer from alcohol and drug abuse and 12 percent suffer from diabetes.
Drive by Resurrection House any weekday morning between 8 and 9 a.m., and you will see dozens of people waiting for the doors to open --- and sometimes a Sarasota Police officer attempting to resolve some early morning dispute or making an arrest due to criminal activity taking place outside the facility.
The one thing Resurrection House does not do is provide overnight shelter. That has never been part of their mission; they prefer instead to focus on the things they do best with the budget they have to work with.
You can help Resurrection House by volunteering your time or donating money or needed goods (especially socks, backpacks, tote bags and blankets).
Visit Resurrection House online or give them a call at: 941-365-3759.
(To be continued ... come back to read and discuss Part Two on Monday, Oct. 1.)
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