A former mayor, a library manager, and a criminal justice lawyer walked into a cafe. The first two helped themselves to free pizza, but the lawyer passed up the offer, as he had promised his wife he would eat dinner with her at home.
And so began the discussion about those who had no such place to return to.
On Feb. 17, the Four Winds held a salon on homelessness in Sarasota, which was attended by a few students. The informal discussion was guided by three speakers: Executive Director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness Richard Martin (’93), Selby Public Library Manager Liz Nolan and Chair of the Suncoast Partnership’s Board of Directors Adam Tebrugge (’79).
“Florida in general is considered one of the top three states for homelessness,” Tebrugge said, referring to Florida’s rate of homelessness as compared with other states. “It’s an issue I sort of fell into due to my appointment at the public defender’s office and … the more I work on it the bigger I realize the issue is.”
Like Tebrugge, Martin (who served as Mayor of Sarasota from ’04-’05) and Nolan have been working with the homeless for years. While Martin’s agency addresses homelessness in both Sarasota and Manatee counties, Nolan helped create a focus group at Selby Library for the homeless which continues to meet every month. But all three are involved in the recently launched initiative to create a 10-year plan to end homelessness in Sarasota, a plan they referred to at the salon.
“The 10-year plan structure is what’s used all over the country,” Nolan said. “The theory behind the 10-year plan is that at the end of 10 years you will have, to the best of your ability, eradicated homelessness in your community. It’s all of these incremental, very specific but yet achievable outcomes that sometimes take years to put in place; for instance, building or buying land or buildings to serve as transitional housing, or … doing some coordination of social services as opposed to the diversified model we have now.”
Although there are several service agencies that help the homeless, these organizations often work independently of one another. The 10-year plan calls upon all members of the community to work together to end and prevent homelessness.
“And that starts with people who are homeless themselves, who can tell their stories so that we can understand [and] all the way on up,” Martin said. “That includes, obviously, the service agencies, but also the police, hospital workers, builders and bankers. There’s no one … that doesn’t really have a piece of this challenge to solve.”
Martin and Tebrugge worked for months before holding a public meeting on Feb. 5 to start work on the plan. According to Martin, over 300 people showed up and about 10% of the attendees were homeless citizens. Everyone self-organized into one of five work groups based on their interests and expertise: housing, health, public safety, prevention and economic development. Tebrugge explained that the public safety group will partly address how the “court system [can] better work with homeless citizens who fall into the criminal justice system,” and that the economic development group will work to “put citizens in touch with training so that if jobs become available, these citizens will be able to take these jobs and ultimately become self-sufficient.”
Each group has its own assignments, and will report to the implementation team, of which Tebrugge is a part. The implementation team will set up future meetings, compile the group reports and write up and present the plan to the community and municipal government. Tebrugge said he hopes to have the first draft of the plan completed by this summer.
While Manatee County launched a 10-year plan in 2006 as a county effort, Sarasota’s plan is being lead by the Suncoast Partnership. “It is truly a community plan, it’s not the county’s plan,” Nolan said.
However, the county is supporting the effort, “now that it’s really set up … to be a community plan,” Martin said. “Probably 10 staff members were at the kickoff for the workshop …. And it doesn’t hurt that commissioner Carolyn Mason is the co-chair of this plan along with [Tebrugge] — that’s a lot of authority that she brings to this.”
So far, law enforcement officials have also played a role in launching the plan. “We had a lot of the key players from the criminal justice system who showed up [on Feb 5] to help us,” Tebrugge said. “Captain Paul Sutton is high in the chain of command at the Sarasota Police Department and he’s also on the Board of Directors of the Suncoast Partnership and he’s leading the public safety work group.”
Martin said that several officers are involved with the plan, but whether or not the plan will receive widespread support from law enforcement “remains to be seen. I think, frankly, there’s probably two points of views within law enforcement—is this about enforcing laws or is this about public safety, including homeless people?”
The next meeting will be held on March 11, and Tebrugge said he plans for monthly meetings over the next six months. “The government realizes that they can’t solve this problem on their own, this is going to have to be a citizen-driven initiative,” Tebrugge said. “But citizens can’t solve the problem either, we’re going to need the resources and strength of government, ultimately, to implement some of our solutions… . The Suncoast Partnership will help put the plan together … but I’m really depending on the regular folks who showed up to do a lot of the work.”