Posted Apr 28, 2019 at 6:00 AM
In Florida, where rents are high and living outdoors is feasible, if not necessarily agreeable, there will likely always be some who are forced to give up a roof rather than go hungry, and others who opt for open-air freedom over domestic responsibility.
Drive down the block of Central Avenue that borders the Salvation Army and you’ll still see a cluster of street-weary individuals parked on the sidewalk, surrounded by their belongings. Almost any time of day, there’s someone on Main Street hawking crosses made from palm fronds, or at the corner of Fruitville Road and the Trail, holding a frayed cardboard sign with the beneficent tagline, “God bless!” Streets of Paradise, a local nonprofit that provides regular free homemade meals, showers, barber sessions and personal supplies to anyone who shows up, still has plenty of takers.
So it can be easy to think Sarasota isn’t making any headway on the perpetual challenge of reducing its homeless population. But there’s a different picture that emerges from a batch of figures released last week. And though numbers are something I rarely write about, I’m making an exception here, because they tell a story that’s promising, if not yet complete.
At a meeting last week of the Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Planning Council, Judge Erika Quartermaine shared the latest data on the Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC), a jail diversion program designed to funnel chronically homeless individuals with mental health conditions into housing and social services. Several days later, the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness released the results of its annual Point in Time (PIT) study, a one-night count of homeless individuals in Sarasota and Manatee counties conducted every January.
Both reports clearly showed that, while we’re nowhere near a clean sweep of our street population, we’re moving in the right direction.
This year’s PIT, conducted by more than 40 volunteers on Jan. 28, counted 1,135 homeless individuals in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, down from 1,192 last year. Given that the PIT is an imperfect estimate to begin with — it represents only a snapshot in time and the actual contacts with a population that can be elusive — a drop of less than 60 may not seem that significant.
But if you compare it to the numbers from three years ago, it’s down almost 23 percent. And if you figure in that Manatee County’s numbers barely dropped this year and actually have gone up over the past three, Sarasota’s results start looking even better.
In the City of Sarasota, which adopted a triaged system two years ago aimed at placing the highest needs individuals in housing first, we’re down nearly 14 percent from last year, and an impressive 50-plus percent since 2016. (The county as a whole showed a nearly 39 percent drop over the same period.) These reductions were accomplished even as requests for housing via the county’s new coordinated entry system have grown.
“As rents increase at a significantly greater rate than income, the lack of affordable workforce housing has played a big part in the number of people who are homeless and seeking housing,” said Ed DeMarco, CEO of the Suncoast Partnership. “While there were 559 new coordinated entry intakes of homeless persons in 2018, there is still a reduction in the overall count of those who were homeless on the night of the annual survey. This demonstrates the effectiveness of the community’s homeless crisis response.”
Over the past year, 256 long-term and high-needs individuals were permanently housed, DeMarco reported.
Likewise, the numbers after two full years of CTC operation were also auspicious. Of 160 total participants, approximately 65 percent successfully “graduated,” having met the program’s goals of refraining from criminal behavior and substance abuse, and having long-term plans for mental health treatment, housing and financial independence (either through employment or disability benefits).
All of the program’s graduates, many of whom had been homeless for three years or more, now have permanent living situations. There was also a 69 percent decrease in arrests (when comparing the year prior to admission and the year after discharge) for all participants.
And all of this was accomplished at a cost to the community of just under $5,000 per person. That’s the equivalent of 14 days in a mental health crisis stabilization unit (CSU) or 53 days in jail, places where more than three-quarters of those in the program had previously spent significant time.
“We’ve found a lot of success in places where no one else could find them,” said Quartermaine, who was a catalyst for formation of the specialized court.
The CTC program has also spun off a new docket, specifically aimed at those in need of housing. Originally dubbed “homeless court,” it is now referred to by the more politically correct “Community Court,” and it will serve as another option for individuals who enter the system via the city and county homeless outreach teams.
The commitment to a coordinated entry system and “housing first” philosophy agreed to by the city and county two years ago, and to the CTC, which is in the final year of three-year grant cycle, have begun to tackle one of Sarasota’s most intractable problems. But it will take sustained attention and funding to keep those numbers going in the right direction.
A three-year grant and the seed money from local foundations that got the CTC off the ground will end this year, meaning local government will likely have to take on a larger share of the expense of its continuation. Meanwhile, the demand for affordable housing continues to grow, as nearly 15,000 Sarasota County families live just a paycheck away from homelessness.
So take a minute to applaud those who’ve initiated this turnaround, then do whatever you can to support its continuation. Mental health care, homelessness and housing remain inextricably linked. It’s no time to back off from any of these fronts.