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Arroyo town hall stirs homelessness conversation

The return of a controversial homelessness expert included some harsh assessments of Sarasota's response strategies — and pushback from local service providers.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. December 3, 2020
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At a town hall meeting at the Sarasota Fairgrounds on Nov. 24, a national figure with a controversial local history offered a mixed assessment of Sarasota’s efforts to address homelessness since 2013.

Robert Marbut, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, appeared in Sarasota last month at the invitation of City Commissioner Erik Arroyo. Arroyo, less than a month into his first term on the commission, said he hosted the town hall in hopes of identifying ways to improve the efficacy of the city’s homelessness response strategies.

“I think it was a good conversation that was needed to be had, because things have changed in the last seven years,” Arroyo said. “We needed to have a real, clear discussion, an unbiased discussion in terms of — how much have we improved?”

Marbut did not conduct a formal review of the regional homelessness system, but he offered both praise and criticism for what he saw in Sarasota. Marbut said he believed Sarasota had the best system in the country for responding to family and youth homelessness. By contrast, he said the area was lacking in its efforts to reduce the population of unsheltered single adults.

“When I drove around, it doesn’t look like there are any results that have changed anything on the ground,” Marbut said.

Marbut’s characterization drew pushback. Chris Johnson, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, said it was inappropriate to use an anecdotal assessment of the visible homeless population as a shorthand. He highlighted data that indicated the unsheltered and sheltered homeless population had decreased locally since 2017.

“The ‘just look out the window’ type of assessment of homelessness doesn’t consider a bunch of different factors,” Johnson said.

Despite tense moments during the town hall, Arroyo said he believed the conversation at the meeting was productive and identified some items he wanted the community to consider. Although Marbut said he believed there were shortcomings to Sarasota’s strategy, Arroyo came away with the belief that modest changes could produce better outcomes.

“Nobody’s proposing an overhaul of the system,” Arroyo said. “I think all we need is to tweak it a little bit.”

Housing debate

Before his 2019 appointment to his federal position, Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota hired Marbut as a consultant in 2013 to produce a report on homelessness.

Marbut’s recommendations included the creation of a come-as-you-are shelter to serve as a jail diversion facility, a proposal criticized by city officials skeptical about the system’s efficacy and who said it was out of line with guidance from other experts.

Contentious debate between the city and county continued into 2016, but local officials ultimately set aside plans for a come-as-you-are shelter and focused on a collaborative homelessness strategy by 2017. The partnership between local governments and service providers emphasized “housing first,” an effort to get individuals into permanent housing as quickly as possible.

Marbut was critical of housing first in 2015 and remains so. At the town hall, he expressed a belief that homelessness response is more effective if there are requirements associated with access to shelter and services. He said homelessness numbers have risen on a national level since the federal government started used housing first to guide its homelessness policies, though he acknowledged some areas have seen positive outcomes.

Marbut’s commentary at the town hall drew an interjection in defense of housing first from Shellie Hummel, the Suncoast Partnership’s coordinated entry project manager. Hummel said Sarasota’s Continuum of Care — a regional partnership of homelessness agencies — provided robust service options for those entering the homelessness system. She said case managers work diligently to identify the best path out of homelessness for each client. After the meeting, Johnson said 80% of the individuals engaged in housing first locally find permanent housing.

“I don’t want anyone here thinking rapid rehousing does not work,” Hummel said. “It does work.”

Marbut agreed the approach could be effective as long as it’s accompanied by good case management and service opportunities.

“Nowhere in the report does it say don’t do housing first,” Marbut said.

On the streets

After driving around downtown Sarasota late last month, Marbut concluded that the unsheltered homeless population was as large as ever. Marbut attributed that phenomenon to a failure to address one of his recommendations from 2013: creating adequate shelter space.

“You don’t have enough volume of beds and units to equal the number of people you have on the street,” Marbut said.

Johnson disagreed, citing point-in-time surveys that indicated Sarasota’s unsheltered homeless population decreased from 664 to 363 during the past four years. Johnson also said the shelter beds the city has available at the Salvation Army are often unfilled.

Johnson said the unsheltered population includes individuals able to make a living by panhandling and chronically homeless individuals, who need more intensive assistance to transition into housing. Johnson said trying to divert this population into a shelter is difficult and potentially counterproductive.

“If you try to put everyone in a shelter, what will happen is people will go right back to the street again,” Johnson said. “Some of them will go to jail. It’s not really effective if you just make it a blanket, hardline, ‘We’re going to enforce the law.’ That person ends up with more charges, more barriers to get into housing. It actually would — if it’s a hardline rule — create long-term chronic homeless individuals.”

People at the town hall and some downtown businesses have expressed a concern about behavior they associate with homelessness, suggesting it negatively affects the experience of visiting the city center. Johnson said he understood that perspective, and he said contacting service providers or outreach teams was the most productive long-term strategy for addressing the issues they face.

“They could actually be a very huge benefit to our system if they called,” Johnson said.

At the end of the meeting, Arroyo highlighted the potentially actionable items he took away from the conversation. It included conditioning housing on getting other services, creating more affordable housing, discouraging donations directly to homeless individuals and taking an alternative approach to evaluating the local homeless population.

“The solution to homelessness boils down to three things,” Arroyo said. “Greater access to service, deterring crime and unlawful behavior and solving the issue that is the migrant flow of concentration of homeless individuals in the city of Sarasota.”

Arroyo said he wanted to follow up on the town hall by discussing the potential actionable items with local stakeholders and bringing the conversation to the City Commission. He was optimistic that an increased focus on homelessness among elected officials could help further reduce the homeless population.

Johnson agreed that some productive points were raised, though some of the action items Arroyo singled out must be addressed at higher levels of government. He suggested there were other opportunities to improve the system, such as lowering the barriers for creating affordable housing and funding more case managers.

“The conversation was what it was,” Johnson said of the town hall. “It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it.”