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Homelessness headlines City Commission meeting

On Monday, the Sarasota City Commission discussed a lawsuit challenging the city’s no-lodging ordinance and a meeting with Sarasota County regarding a strategy for addressing homelessness issues.

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  • | 11:57 a.m. October 6, 2015
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At Monday’s City Commission meeting, discussions about an upcoming meeting with the Sarasota County Commission regarding homelessness repeatedly highlighted a philosophical division between the two governments.

As city commissioners discussed how they might work to overcome those divisions and collaborate with the county on a strategic initiative to address the issue, City Manager Tom Barwin attempted to assure the board that things aren’t as bad as they might feel.

“We know there are some common grounds,” Barwin said.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie quickly interjected a simple question: “Where?”

The rejoinder played as a moment of levity during Monday’s meeting, but it spoke to legitimate concerns from the City Commission. Leading up to a Nov. 6 city-county joint meeting, the two sides are pursuing seemingly distinct plans to combat homelessness.

The county is still following the course set by consultant Robert Marbut, who has endorsed a large, 250-bed come-as-you-are shelter. After dropping out of the conversation regarding the shelter, the city has endorsed a “housing first” model, which works to create permanent supportive housing to get homeless individuals off the street.

"How do we meet in the middle?" — Shelli Freeland Eddie

City homelessness director Doug Logan came to Monday’s meeting to outline an ambitious agenda he hoped to discuss at the joint city-county meeting, which included the potential creation of a mental health taxing district and an agency focused on creating affordable housing.

According to Logan, however, the county has indicated a desire to focus on one question: Would the city support any of the county’s proposals for developing a larger regional homeless shelter?

Logan and Barwin pledged to ask the county if the Nov. 6 meeting could have a broader agenda. Several commissioners wondered whether, even though the two commissions had different priorities, their missions could still complement one another — the shelter serving as a checkpoint before individuals are housed.

“How do we meet in the middle?” Eddie said.

Barwin cited the mutual support for some sort of a shelter as an example of “common ground” between the city and county. The city supports a small “navigation center,” consisting of 25-50 beds, rather than the large come-as-you-are shelter, and the location of any shelter remains a point of dispute.

Commissioner Susan Chapman, a vocal critic of Marbut’s shelter plans and supporter of the housing-first model, was less optimistic that the two sides would simply be able to meet in the middle. Without bringing in a third party, such as other municipalities in Sarasota County, Chapman didn’t think much common ground would be found.

"I would love to find a way to stop this circular argument, I really would — but I have no idea how to do it." — Susan Chapman

“I would love to find a way to stop this circular argument, I really would — but I have no idea how to do it,” Chapman said. “We have been saying the same things for what? Over a year, a year and half, at least? There’s just a fundamental fixed difference.”

In advance of the Nov. 6 meeting, the City Commission will hold a special meeting at which Logan will present more details regarding the city’s proposals for addressing homelessness.

Legal Affairs

Also at Monday’s City Commission meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier delivered a scathing criticism of a lawsuit challenging the city’s no-lodging ordinance — and one of the individuals behind the legal battle.

Last week, six homeless individuals filed a suit against the city and police department, claiming the city’s no-lodging ordinance effectively criminalized homelessness. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice wrote a statement of interest that argued the enforcement of an anti-camping ordinance was unconstitutional if that person “literally has nowhere else to go.”

Fournier unreservedly shared his opinion on the case: that it’s a political ploy from legal consultant Michael Barfield, an attempt to browbeat the city into supporting the creation of a come-as-you-are shelter.

"I think the plaintiffs aren’t being helped here; they’re being used." — Robert Fournier

“I think the plaintiffs aren’t being helped here; they’re being used,” Fournier said. “I think they’re being used as pawns in a chess game to influence legislative policy-making that is your prerogative.”

As for the specifics of the case, Fournier argues that Barfield is trying to extend the logic of the Justice Department opinion. As long as the city does not enforce the ordinance when no shelter is available at the Salvation Army, Fournier said the city isn’t depriving anyone of their right to sleep — they’re being provided with an alternative.

Fournier said the lawsuit argues the lack of shelter space to house all of the homeless individuals in the city should make the no-lodging ordinance moot.

“Once again, it’s down the rabbit hole with Michael Barfield,” Fournier said.

For three of the individuals, Fournier said, there’s no specific allegation that there was no shelter available when the individuals were cited for violation of the ordinance.

The other three were cited at the same time, outside of Selby Public Library. After the individuals declined to be taken to a shelter, the police officer gave them a trespass warning, which meant they were at risk of being arrested if they returned to the premises.

Fournier said there were conflicting reports regarding how that event played out, and that the officers present deny supplying this information, but a bystander may have informed the individuals that the Salvation Army was closed that night. After a formal appeal challenging the trespass warning, the city agreed to withdraw the warning two days after the original citation.

"I don’t think that not being able to go to the library for one day constitutes the type of cruel and unusual punishment that the Eighth Amendment was designed to prohibit." — Robert Fournier

Although the lawsuit alleges at least one of the individuals had difficulties entering the library in the aftermath, Fournier said the trespass warning that came from the no-lodging ordinance was only in effect for one day.

“I don’t think that not being able to go to the library for one day constitutes the type of cruel and unusual punishment that the Eighth Amendment was designed to prohibit,” Fournier said.

At the recommendation of Fournier, the commission agreed not to suspend its no-lodging ordinance in response to the lawsuit.


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