The debate on homelessness in Sarasota County has largely overlooked what experts consider the area’s most pressing homelessness-related question — how to care for the 907 homeless children identified in Sarasota County schools last year, including 90 with no adult in their lives.
“So many people think that the homeless are the guys living under the bridge or panhandling on the street corner because that is the most visual part of the problem,” said Dr. Robert Marbut, a homelessness expert the city of Sarasota and Sarasota County hired to survey the area’s homeless population and recommend a plan of action. “What you see and what you know are very different things in this county. There is a huge amount of homeless children, you just don’t see them.”
Marbut’s findings will be published in a report, set for release Nov. 25, which compiled data generated by the YMCA Schoolhouse Link’s homeless outreach program, along with Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data and findings from other area agencies, such as law enforcement, which compile statistics on homeless populations. Homelessness was defined as the loss of primary nighttime residence.
In a discussion about his upcoming report, Marbut said it will also indicate that previous estimates of Sarasota County’s homeless population underestimated the population by as much 400%.
“I think Sarasota is at an absolute tipping point,” Marbut said. “There is now a crisis with homeless families and children. The scale of the problem was grossly underestimated for a long time.”
The debate out of City Hall and the County Commission chambers in the run up to the release of Marbut’s report has focused on the location of a proposed homeless shelter to provide long-term food and shelter services.
Marbut said he will recommend the shelter be built downtown, close to the homeless population’s center of mass, facilitating the engagement of homeless in programs that might graduate them from the streets.
Downtown business owners and residents largely oppose a downtown shelter, claiming such a facility would likely attract more homeless downtown, potentially compromising the area’s image as an artistic hub and tourist destination.
But, according to Marbut, the shelter debate only addresses the needs of the chronically homeless — those who choose homelessness as a lifestyle. The circumstantially homeless, people homeless due to financial hardship or other personal problems, have different needs and require different programs and facilities, Marbut said.
“Homelessness is not monolithic,” Marbutt said. “Each group has its own triggers and treatments. Once you understand the triggers are different, you realize you need different solutions.”
Marbut said the top-three recommendations in his report will address the circumstantially homeless population, specifically addressing the needs of the area’s homeless children.
“Children are my top concern,” Marbut said. “Much more so than the chronic male and female populations.”
Marbut’s top recommendation will be the construction of two family crisis centers (one for south county and one for the north), similar to an emergency room, where families who unexpectedly become homeless can go in an emergency while waiting for a long-term solution.
Other area family shelters, such as the Salvation Army’s Family Dorm and the Families in Transitional Housing Program are designed to provide more long-term solutions to the conditions that cause homelessness, leaving a need in the area for emergency family shelters that can receive families 24/7.
These emergency shelters can help keep kids in school, a crucial step in stabilizing the family, Marbut said.
One of the leading criticisms of homeless services in Sarasota County is they are too enabling, making homelessness an attractive lifestyle by not linking assistance to programs intended to get people off the streets and back into the workforce.
The greatest impediment to providing care for the circumstantially homeless, however, is overcoming the reluctance of those in need to come forward.
“With families and children, they usually do everything to avoid you; they’re afraid of getting turned in,” Marbut said. “Enabling is not the problem with families. The challenge is encouraging them to come in and ask for help.”
Marbut’s report will be released Nov. 25 in a series of three public meetings.
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]