Consultant on homeless: Sarasota not sticking to plan

5:46 PM, Mar 14, 2014   |    comments
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Sarasota, Florida- The City of Sarasota's homeless problem heats up after its own consultant criticizes city leaders and police for relocating the homeless out of an illegal campsite. 

"They're not following my recommendation," says Robert Marbut, a national expert on the homeless. 

The police enforcement has been put on hold until city commissioners discuss the issue at Monday's Commission meeting. The City Attorney added the item to the agenda.

Willie Douglas, 58, and his girlfriend Robyn have made a wooded area off 10th way and Orange Avenue- commonly known as Tent City- their home for a year. The property sits next to an old abandoned cemetery, and is shared with about 30 other homeless people.

"It's been hard, but we made it. Now they want to throw us out," says Willie Douglas.

Sarasota Police are enforcing the city's illegal lodging ordinance.

Police say they're not just enforcing the law, they're also protecting the safety of the people around the area, including the homeless, after investigating two homicides and a sexual assault in recent years.

"We're concerned about the safety, welfare and health of the individuals living here," says Lt. Kevin Stiff, Sarasota Police Officer.

It's how the city is going about it that has drawn some controversy. 

First police notified the homeless they have five days to leave, then the homeless outreach teams begin with assistance from the Salvation Army- providing a 30 day stay plus services.

Director of Social Services for the Salvation Army David Sutton says the men and women will have a place to sleep and eat, plus any other assistance they may need, such as clothing, help acquiring an ID, a way to call family or even a bus ticket home. 

Sutton says anyone who shows an interest to improve their lives will be helped, and that some may qualify for a longer program to help with drug addiction or mental disorders. 

"Again our goal is to get them into housing," says Sutton.

Police officers are also finding homes for their pets. The Cat Depot removed Willie and Robyn's cats.

"I'm upset they'll be gone, but happy they'll be taken care of," says Robyn.

"We did not want to arrest everyone and tell everyone to leave. We had an opportunity to do something positive," says Lt Stiff. "...It is in no way political," he added.

Good intentions aside, Robert Marbut, the city and county's paid consultant on homelessness says the city's latest action is doing more harm than good.

"The way they are doing it- in the long term it will not be successful. It's been proven over, and over again around the country- this approach will not work," he says. 

Marbut says no one consulted him on this move to relocate the homeless. He says his first phone call came from a news reporter. 

"Why suddenly do it now?" asks Marbut.

According to Marbut, his proven plan approved by City Commissioners in a 3-2 vote in November calls for relocating the homeless once the proposed shelter is built on one of two proposed shelter sites.

The transition process, he says, would be well planned out with trained police and case managers, and would take place 2-to-4 weeks before the new shelter opens. In addition, a case manager would make the first contact with the homeless, not police, as happened this week. 

Marbut says the city did not follow this plan.

"Got to get the shelter done first."

As for the homeless, some do not want to go to the Salvation Army. Willie and his girlfriend would be split up at night because men and women are not allowed to sleep together.

"They're tearing everybody's family apart. All of us have been together for so long and know each other, and they're taking that away," says Willie. 

And as far as law enforcement goes, Willie says "I don't trust them. I don't trust them..."

"I find it very insincere that the city is putting up so many roadblocks on trying to get a shelter worked on but suddenly find the energy and effort to do this," says Marbut.

The consultant says he's not a lawyer but from his experience the city is setting itself up for a lawsuit. Marbut's message to commissioners, "Follow the plan. The plan is laid out in a timely, orderly thoughtful and strategic way. Don't cherry pick what you want to do, do it out of order you do it the wrong way."

Isabel Mascarenas

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