Sarasota City leaders work on treatment of homeless

7:25 PM, Dec 6, 2012   |    comments
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Sarasota, Florida- Sarasota police and city officials are under fire for their alleged mistreatment of the homeless.

First a homeless man is arrested for charging his phone at a city park; then the ACLU releases text messages from officers saying they're "bum hunting" and last week the police department launches an internal investigation against two officers for possibly using excessive force.

The ACLU says there's a culture of contempt and abuse. The city manager disagrees saying the city is being proactive and confronting the problem with solutions not band-aids. City officials point to a program called Street Teams.

Four hours a day, five days a week working for the city. Dave, 49, has been in the program for a month. He says, "I get a chance to help the community and help myself."

The work earns Dave room and board at the Salvation Army, and three meals a day. It's a step to getting back on his feet.

"It's an opportunity for us. It gives us a chance to look for work; gives us a sense of accomplishment," says Dave. "I have two beautiful daughters in Tampa; I want to be able to take care of them."

The city launched the Street Teams program in May. It's made up of two teams of seven homeless individuals wanting to turn their lives around. 

The program is modeled after one in Daytona and costs the city $80,000 to run both teams. Organizers say so far, 36 of the 75 homeless individuals who have participated have full time jobs.

Dave says, "People have a different attitude towards us. Instead of being a homeless person, we're doing something positive."

Sarasota's City Manager Tom Barwin and the acting Police Chief Captain Paul Sutton are trying to change images, such as the one captured on video last month at a bus station downtown. The video shows a Sarasota officer slamming a homeless man against the wall during an arrest.

Barwin says, "We have some imagery, some situations not handled as professionally or as appropriately as all of us would hope."

Barwin says those incidents are the minority; the ones the public sees. 

"They haven't seen the 99%- the routine contacts. We get people to the treatment centers, shelters, meals, showers, a place to do their laundry. I think it's a misrepresentation of what really happens here."

Barwin is holding office hours at the Sarasota Police Department every Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m. to receive feedback from the public and police officers.

"We do need to be perfect, and [we] are trying to be perfect and treat every citizen, even though they may have issues and problems with compassion. We need to work harder on our response to that subset of the community."

The City Manager has set up a Homeless Advisory Task Force. It will meet every two weeks for the next 90 days and try to trouble shoot problems facing the homeless with the hope of finding solutions to meet their needs.

Barwin has asked former Police Chief John Lewis to spend the next 30 days speaking to police officers, gathering information on what they need to do a better job. Barwin says officers will likely receive more training.

Isabel Mascarenas

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