Although some stakeholders offered a positive assessment of ongoing outreach efforts, City Manager Tom Barwin is pushing for more action.
As local government officials have worked to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, City Manager Tom Barwin has maintained a focus on addressing potential issues facing individuals without housing during the pandemic.
Since mid-March, Barwin has been reaching out to partners including the county and the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County about potential strategies for providing shelter and minimizing the risk of spread among the homeless population. And although both county and city staff members have spoken positively about the community’s ongoing homelessness-response efforts, Barwin has expressed a desire to take more meaningful action.
“We’re just very concerned because if an outbreak were to run through that particular community, it could be a real time bomb and put some real pressure on our medical facilities,” Barwin said.
On March 22, Barwin sent an email to city and county officials advocating for plans to address COVID-19 challenges within the homeless population. Barwin also said the region should be considering “emergency temporary sheltering and basic hygiene and nutrition arrangements,” such as potentially using hotel rooms, trailers or tents to house individuals without homes while maintaining social distancing.
At an April 10 news conference, Sheriff Tom Knight was critical of the idea of establishing a tent community. Knight was also critical of the city for its previous opposition to a shelter and jail diversion facility in 2015, which city officials criticized as a plan not in line with best practices.
“That was a missed opportunity that’s now become a crisis inside the city of Sarasota, and a tent isn’t going to solve that crisis,” Knight said. “A tent could compound a viral issue right now. When you think on an emergency basis, and you think on emotion, you think irrationally.”
The county has adopted plans related to food, shelter and hygiene within the homeless populations. The feeding plan has focused on expanding the capacity of service providers and ensuring they are operating safely.
The shelter plan calls for the use of hotels for individuals under quarantine who cannot self-isolate or do not have a home. As of April 14, one person had accessed shelter under that plan.
The hygiene plan had not been actively implemented as of April 14. As the county works with other entities, including municipalities and the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, Wayne Applebee, Sarasota County’s senior manager of human services, said the county has been working to identify potential issues, so officials are prepared to respond when the situation demands.
“Identifying the need is the first step,” Applebee said via email. “The second step includes developing plans that address what the data is telling us and ensure any plan developed follows the CDC guidelines related to COVID-19. Implementation is the last step when the data tells us it is time to implement.”
The city has taken some steps on its own to address hygiene concerns by adding portable toilets and hand-washing stations outside City Hall and in the Rosemary District. Krystal Frazier, interim homelessness response coordinator, said the city has also distributed masks and hand sanitizers. Frazier said the city has helped 24 people find housing since the outbreak began.
Frazier said there were some challenges reaching out to the homeless population at the outset of the disease because individuals were concerned about the risks associated with COVID-19. During the past several weeks, Frazier said stakeholders have found ways to overcome those challenges.
“We’ve luckily improvised really well, and it’s not as much of a barrier anymore,” Frazier said. “Individuals experiencing homelessness — they’re so incredibly resilient and resourceful. As soon as we gave them a little bit of direction, they took it, and they’ve done a fantastic job of making sure to stay in contact with us.”
Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, said government officials and service providers have been collaborating effectively.
With unemployment rising, Johnson said one point of emphasis during COVID-19 has been working to prevent individuals from losing their housing.
“The conversation we’ve had with service providers is: Let’s amp up diversion conversations, so anyone who doesn’t have to come into the system won’t,” Johnson said.
At an April 20 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Hagen Brody expressed some concern about Barwin’s emphasis on addressing homelessness issues.
“We have a lot of need and a lot of demand to spread around right now,” Brody said. “I know that is an important issue, but it can’t be the only issue our city manager is focused on dealing with.”
Commissioner Willie Shaw, however, said it was important for the entire community to address challenges of homelessness.
“This issue isn’t going away,” Shaw said. “It’s going to take all of us working together here. The work of putting up wash stations and port-o-lets are one thing, but that’s only a temporary gap measure.”