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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009 11 years ago

My View

by: Rod Thomson

Our system for dealing with the homeless in Sarasota is broken. It is not, as some suspect, that we do not provide enough services or are not adequately compassionate. We’re far from being “mean” to the homeless, as is often charged. If anything, the common compassion is badly directed, making the problem worse for the homeless and the public.

The numbers, as detailed last week by Sarasota Observer City Editor Robin Roy, paint the stark reality of a busted system.

The top 15 chronic criminal offenders in downtown Sarasota are transients who have compiled a depressing 876 arrests between them. Ramon Ibarra has been arrested 130 times. Clinton Scott has been arrested 112 times. Willie Bell 91 times. And so on. You need a small police department solely for these guys.

The criminals are picked up for charges ranging from aggravated battery, burglary, robbery, theft and concealed weapons to public urination, disorderly intoxication, soliciting, illegal lodging and trespassing.

They are arrested, officers must leave the streets to fill out the paperwork, jailers must watch over them, the courts must adjudicate them and they must be fed and bathed and sheltered.

On minor charges — which is most of them — they can only get 30 days in jail, which is enough for them to get cleaned up, shaved, fed and rested and head back out to start their wrecked cycle again. They usually don’t even mind the short jail time with the food and shelter for nothing. They often get fined — the top 15 owe $176,000 in fines — but these are almost impossible to collect.

In a cold-hearted assessment, these people are a 100% drain on civilized society. And by pampering them in shelters that require no responsibility — unlike the Salvation Army — those supposedly seeking to help the homeless have enabled them in their self-destructive cycles.

These people are a nuisance at best. A threat at worst. And we do them and ourselves no favors by molly-coddling them in shelters and county jails. There’s just no other conclusion to draw.

What we are doing is not working for the chronic and criminal homeless — as opposed to those few who find themselves homeless temporarily.

One goofy homeless advocate group labeled Sarasota the meanest city for homeless because merchants, shockingly, do not want them sleeping and urinating in front of their stores.

Although that made page 1 news in the local daily newspaper, it is demonstrably bogus. If we were so mean, transients would simply move on to a friendlier town. The homeless are nothing if not mobile. But they stick around, and the reason is clear. They get “three hots and a cot” and then are set free after a few days to continue their self-destructive and community-destructive behavior.

Tweaking our broken system will not work. Better training for homeless-shelter workers will not work because more of the same is a prescription for failure. Sending them to prison is too expensive and still destructive. No, what we need is something completely, radically different in helping the homeless and our community.

What may fit that bill is a tough-love homeless facility.

Not a shelter, but a secure facility where chronic small-time criminal transients are sent to dry out, de-tox and stay that way in an almost boot-camp setting. That means something much longer than 30 days, more like six months to a year. Keep them off the streets and out of the already-clogged judicial system and give them a better chance.

Such a facility could require skill-training for employment, therapy for alcohol and drug-rehabilitation, self-discipline skills, voluntary religious teaching and little down time. It would provide them with tools for being productive members of society and redeeming their lives. This would give them the chance at real dignity, not the vapid dignity promoted by homeless “advocates” who have done so much harm.

And there would be mental assessments. There are some people who are clearly incapable of taking care of themselves and functioning in society. Those people need to be institutionalized.

The facility would not be easy or fun and not a place they could cycle in and out of, playing to their weaknesses. They would not want to return for another year of it. That’s called motivation. It would combine the teaching to keep them safe and sound and the motivation to keep them from wanting to return. It’s radical.

The only real drawback to such a plan — which would require the necessary laws to be put in place — is that it will cost money. But it may not cost much more money than the present costs within the system. And it would free up police and courts for more serious and urgent cases and make our downtown friendlier.

+ Economy and crime down
Speaking of crime, the culture-watchers and media establishment are baffled at some new statistics. Crime is down in Sarasota and in Florida in most major categories from last year.

And, in the key categories of burglary and theft, it is plummeting. Thefts are down 9.5% in Sarasota County and down more than 16% in Manatee County.

This has many watchers scratching their heads, because the assumption is that when the economy gets worse, crime goes up. You know, folks are desperate, they have to feed their families, and so on.

But crime has always been less about need and more about moral decrepitude. Most criminals are criminals because they lack the moral wherewithal to make the right choices. More proof? Most poor people are not thieves; plenty of rich ones are — think of certain fund managers.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review. He can be reach at [email protected]

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