Split with local nonprofit reflects the city’s shifting homelessness response in the pandemic

Greg Cruz in front of SOP’s shower trailer.
All pictures Willa Tinsley/Catalyst

In a city once named the “meanest” in the nation toward the houseless, Streets of Paradise (SOP) is a bright light in the dark. Sarasota’s humble grassroots initiative has grown rapidly over the past two years, completing over 300 move-ins and numerous food shares. While most organizations for the houseless cut or severely curtailed services in the COVID-19 crisis, SOP stepped up to lead the city’s pandemic response on the streets. 

When Sarasota went on lockdown last March, most of its official support system for the houseless did, too. Resurrection House, the city’s day shelter, closed entirely and the Salvation Army slashed its services. After a prolonged government stalemate and failed negotiations for a temporary shelter, city manager Tom Barwin approached SOP for help. 

The all-volunteer organization went above and beyond what was asked of them. While Sarasota’s well-to-do residents hunkered down with their food delivery apps, in hiding from the unwashed masses, SOP moved their massive Arbor Village furnishing project a month forward to help as many as possible “shelter in place.” The government forbade gatherings of more than ten, forcing the houseless to scatter throughout the city. 

“We’d find them,” wrote SOP volunteer Devon Oppenheimer. “Though our crew had diminished significantly, we showed up at the home of [SOP Director of Operations] Cathy Bryant each evening. Four to six [volunteers] delivered the food, along with water, throughout Sarasota, via the back of a pick-up truck. By May 31, our final distribution day, approximately 15,000 meals had been served by SOP, while other organizations had remained in lockdown mode.” 

SOP also worked with the Department of Health to distribute face masks, share virus information and register houseless individuals for testing. 

“When you go back and read the articles put out by the Continuum of Care in regards to their response to the pandemic, you’ll see that what they stated they did is the work that we did entirely,” Bryant pointed out. “There was no one else feeding, there was no one else registering for COVID testing, there was no one else returning the results to them.”

The Continuum of Care (CoC) is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to coordinate housing and services for the houseless. The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness (SPEH) is the lead agency for the CoC in Sarasota and Manatee counties and the sole recipient of federal and state grants, which they distribute to member organizations. 

Streets of Paradise’s Accessible Shower Trailer 

When the SPEH asked SOP to join the Continuum in January 2019, they were optimistic about the partnership. While SOP still received no government funding, leaving them free to help individuals outside the system, it connected them to people in CoC agencies like The Salvation Army and Sarasota Police Department (SPD) Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) who were in need of their home furnishing service. For their part, SPEH was able to appropriate SOP’s success statistics— according to SPEH’s research, people are 87 percent more likely to remain housed when moved into a fully furnished home rather than an empty enclosed space. SOP was happy to cooperate with the city’s requests, from turning their food shares mobile and socially distanced to the coronavirus testing and tracking. 

Meanwhile, SOP was raising money for a long-time dream of the volunteers: a custom-built shower trailer for their “street family”. Their plan was hardly surreptitious—according to its members, SOP discussed the shower truck in May 2020 with City Manager Tom Barwin and then-interim SPD HOT leader Krystal Frazier, who were supportive of the endeavor. The trailer arrived in June, just in time for summer; the culmination of 18 months of community fundraising. SOP’s first shower day was held on June 14 behind the 5th Street fire station, which provided water. In addition to showers, the event offered homemade meals, frozen food packages to be eaten later, free clothes and hygiene essentials, laundry and personal grooming services and music and human connection. 

Some visitors peruse the shower day clothing offerings.

“The Shower Days are spectacular; they really are like celebrations,” SOP volunteer Devon Oppenheimer said. “As human beings we need to eat, we need to be clothed, we need to be clean, we need some kind of shelter; those are sort of the four basics. So we were really excited to be able to provide these showers, because it was an essential service that was really needed out there and was missing.” 

SOP’s happiness was short-lived: their last shower day was held on August 14. This fall has been quite productive for Sarasota officials—they accomplished a lot in just the first week of September. First, the city extended the state of emergency due to coronavirus. Next they removed all the public “hygiene stations” (portable toilets and sinks) they installed in April to assist the houseless—following the houseless’ downtown protests of city officials’ inaction on their pledge to make special accommodations for the homeless in the pandemic. Then on September 4, officials including City Manager Tom Barwin and SPEH CEO Chris Johnson told SOP leaders Bryant and Greg Cruz that their outreach was no longer needed or welcome. The shower truck was allegedly operating illegally and contrary to the CoC’s values, they were “enabling.” It was a far cry from the gratitude Barwin and company had expressed for SOP’s help in the pandemic. 

A YourObserver.com article proclaims that “despite the severity of the challenge, there is a sense of optimism among those working on addressing homelessness. CEO of the SPEH Chris Johnson explained that the response to COVID-19 has involved an infusion of funds through programs including the federal coronavirus relief bill to support local governments and agencies.” 

Through the CARES act, at least $75.1 million has come into Sarasota County to help the houseless; the funds are good from March to December 31, 2020. It’s unclear where the money’s been allocated.

Kevin Stiff, former SPD HOT Coordinator, came out of retirement to reclaim his position in early August. Interim Coordinator Krystal Frazier, who was supportive of SOP’s endeavors, was relieved of her duties. Stiff said the city was unable to find a suitable replacement and asked him to return. He is excited to resume his mission of consolidating the city’s houselessness response under one directive: housing first. Stiff has helped revamp their official data collection and funding strategies to reflect this value. 

“We’ve become the City of Sarasota first, and we’ve become housing focused,” Stiff explained, on the changes he’s made to the system. “All of our efforts, as we spend money on homelessness, is not service-oriented. It’s how we move people from homelessness to housing. We want homelessness to be rare, brief, and non-recurring. The solution is not how many meals can I give away, or how many free beds I can give away. The solution is how many people can I put in housing? And what dollars, if I’m spending all my money, how many dollars am I spending to house people?” 

Upon his return, one of Stiff’s first actions was to shut down SOP’s shower days. Bryant said he told her the trailer could not operate on public land (behind the fire station, or on the street) without a permit, but could not cite which permit was required. SOP’s calls to city officials purportedly failed to shed light on the situation, despite assurances. Planned Parenthood agreed to host the trailer on their lot, and the last shower day was held there on August 16. Sergeant Tammy Featherstone of SPD visited to “check up on” this one and proclaimed there were no violations. Yet the city said that was not allowed, either. 

In an August 25 Zoom meeting with city officials, SOP was told they needed a “major conditional use” permit for the first time. 

“Streets of Paradise was performing showers downtown,” Stiff said, “And in that area, they require a permit to do that. If you live in a neighborhood, you don’t want anybody showing up doing whatever they want, without at least being vetted first, especially by your community.” 

Thornburg echoed that they required “some kind of conditional use permit,” but also could not cite which section of local or state code it would be under, apart from how important it was that SOP apply for it—“Especially in our community, we have a lot of public participation, so any time there’s any type of special use permit, there [must be] an opportunity for those who may be impacted by that request to provide their input to the City Commission”—and that no agency had ever successfully applied for and been granted it. 

Bryant said the mysterious permit in question would have a costly, drawn-out application process, eventually going before the same people that are currently rejecting it, and that they led SOP to believe their appeal would be refused. When I asked Stiff if he believed it was possible the permit would be granted, Thornburg asked in turn that we “take a step back.” 

Accordingly, Stiff, Barwin and Johnson are now in agreement that SOP’s services are redundant. Now that Resurrection House has partially reopened, the Salvation Army is expanding its services, and life in Sarasota, according to Barwin, “is slowly returning to normal,” everything but SOP’s home furnishing service is supposedly better offered by “other CoC partners.” 

“Providing free food, free showers and free shelter does not end homelessness. It only sustains it. [They’re] making people comfortable while they’re homeless,” said Stiff. “I don’t know how comfortable we made it, but the SA and Resurrection House serve a meal every day. These opportunities are there if they choose to use them. If I was telling that community that say, ‘We want to do something to help the homeless’: Good! Then help us fund more HOT beds, help us fund more case management, help us fund more affordable housing. That’s where we need to spend our dollars.” 

Since SOP’s services are offered at no cost to the houseless or the taxpayer, unlike the Salvation Army and Resurrection House, Stiff’s implication that SOP takes money away from the CoC could only be because it takes away paying customers and paying data entries to present for more funding. 

On August 17, Bryant says SPEH CEO Chris Johnson called to discuss a barrier they were facing: data entry to the CoC database to create documentation of their work. He suggested the Salvation Army as a collaborative partner, but the SA has refused SOP’s cooperative offers. Most recently, in response to the SA’s extended sewage issues rendering their showers unusable, Bryant offered to bring the shower truck for their residents; SA elected to rent showers and porta-potties instead. 

Bettina Phelps gives a haircut on shower day.

“I have a feeling it boils down to money,” said Raquel Carlson, who works with SOP and provides free haircuts at Sarasota’s Remnant Cafe. “When we provide a shower, they feel it takes away from their preferred businesses. Also, the city doesn’t like having people who are homeless around downtown. Makes the rich people upset, so they try to deny services to make them go away. They’re okay with us doing the move-ins because they need that from us to get their funding, but they don’t want us doing anything to better the lives of those out there because in their skewed way of thinking people will then want to be homeless.”

Stiff disagrees: “To say that the city doesn’t want the services downtown would be a fallacy, because we are partners with the Salvation Army, the Resurrection House and the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness; these are all downtown. I think we need to look at the number of services, and are we reproducing the same service in our downtown core. It’s a broader conversation.”

But to many on the streets, what volunteer organizations like SOP offer is priceless and inimitable. 

“[On shower days] we would celebrate each other’s achievements,” said Bryant. “The very last shower day that we had, we were able to supply size 16.5 work boots to a guy so that instead of day labor, he could do a job that paid $17.50/hour. That’s a really big deal. He’ll be able to work himself off the streets with that.” 

Personal hygiene, a pillar of mental and physical health, is extraordinarily difficult to maintain for many of South Florida’s houseless population. For Steve Novia, a formerly houseless local (and beneficiary of SOP), bathing was a dangerous affair: a group would head to a lake or pond, a few at a time wading in while the rest searched the water for alligators. Another formerly houseless man, Edward Robinson, said he used the water down at City Hall when he couldn’t get one from SOP. Now, in the summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, hygiene is more important than ever. 

“The combination of hot and wet is really miserable for people on the street,” said Bryant. “What we were seeing—well, what we’re still seeing now, with the inability to do anything about it—is a lot of infection, lots of skin issues, blisters and so on.” 

Cathy Bryant in front of shower trailer’s washing machines.

Bryant said her favorite thing about Shower Days was seeing boundaries dissolve: at the end of the event, the volunteers were indistinguishable from their “street family.” One woman in a wheelchair, Cookie, got her first shower in a year. 

“It’s a two stall shower truck, and one of them is ADA compliant,” explained Oppenheimer. “You can take somebody in a wheelchair up the ramp and directly into that stall, and then that person can have someone assist them to get what they need. Done. It’s fantastic.”

Two currently houseless people Edward Robinson and Linda, who preferred to only be identified by her first name, disagreed that SOP was replicating the Salvation Army’s services. 

“I went to the Salvation Army and I paid 20,000 dollars to go to hair school, right? I was in it. Six months, I was doing wonderful,” Linda said. “And then my dad died and all that stuff happened. And I asked them, I said I need somewhere to stay, because I’m going to school. I have to have somewhere to put my clothes. They helped me for a week and then told me I had to get out.” 

“That’s the Salvation Army,” Robinson interjected, putting his arm around her. 

“And they never looked again.” A tear snaked down her sun-soaked face. Edward wiped it.
“Long as they get your name on a list, they get the grants. They don’t give a fuck what happens as long they get their money.” 

“Now I’m out here tricking, smoking; I’ve never done that,” Linda said. “I never tricked a day in my life until I came out here.” 

“There’s this white lady named Tammy who’s got a church you can go take a shower,” said Robinson. “She does more for the homeless than the Salvation Army. They have hundreds of millions of dollars. She just has a little church. But she’ll wash your clothes and give you food. Salvation Army has all these rich Mercedes Benz and Lexuses [in the parking lot] and they don’t do a fuck.” 

Carlson mentioned Remnant Cafe’s numbers went from around 40-60 daily to now regularly over 100, since the city’s homeless services shut down in the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers have been down at the Resurrection House, which, despite Stiff’s assertion that it serves a meal every day, is currently only open two days a week. 

On August 26, SOP officially severed their relationship with the CoC. “They say we enable people by feeding or providing showers, but what we are really enabling is for them to continue taking our labor, our dedication and our passion for granted,” said Cruz. Their shower truck remains out of use for the time being, which comes as a blow to many on living the streets in the pandemic. 

Johnson of the SPEH said that SOP’s services “are nice, but will never do anything to end someone’s homelessness,” and that they don’t have a track record of referring people to “rapid rehousing points of entry.” 

Robinson begs to differ. SOP helped him get both a housing situation and shelter at the SA. Last week, he moved into a new place of his own. 

From left, Douglas Shea, Moses, Cathy Bryant, in the SOP trailer’s laundry room.

“To say they helped me would be an understatement,” said Robinson. “With SOP, if you put one foot forward, they’ll put two hands to help that foot. If you show them any kind of movement that you’re trying to help yourself, they’ll promote you through prayer, they’ll promote you through fellowship, they’ll provide you with the things you need—hygiene, clothing, medical supplies. They’ll even go out of their way and take you to appointments, get your birth certificate, driver’s license, Social Security. If you want any kind of betterment for yourself, Streets of Paradise will take the torch and run with you.”
Robinson said the genuine connections people build with SOP members help raise them out of cycles of recidivism. 

“You don’t want to do crime when you have people who are believing in you more than you believe in yourself,” Robinson said.  “It helps when you have to make that decision: should I steal out of the store? Or should I wait for SOP to come by and help me get clothing and food? They enable you to do the right thing.” 

No one on the streets was familiar with Kevin Stiff, but when asked, Robinson had a message for him. 

“I would say to that guy who’s over the HOT team, Kevin: if you really, really want to help, if you really want to put that money you’re getting from the government to better use, you would go get an advocate from the homeless and actually spend a date,” Robinson said. “I don’t mean just come for an hour and then leave and go back to the house. I mean live on the streets for a 24 hour period and speak to the people themselves and then you will have a better understanding of what needs to be done.”

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