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At This Sarasota Court, The Focus Is Addressing The Causes Of Homelessness

WUSF's Cathy Carter reports on innovative court in Sarasota.

Helping homeless people get back on their feet is the goal of a new specialized court in Sarasota.

Known as ‘Community Care Court,’ the cases are limited to homeless people charged with non-violent misdemeanors, such as trespassing or possessing an open container of alcohol.

The court does not sentence the defendants, but instead recommends resources for rehabilitation and sometimes requires them to check back in on their progress over the course of several hearings.

Kevin Stiff, the Coordinator of Homelessness Response for the City of Sarasota says the court helps homeless individuals navigate the legal system and connects them to programs that can help.

“They have an opportunity now in court to take a link to services or be paired up with a case manager to help them take positive steps to ending their recycling into the system,” he said. “We just want to break the cycle of offending.”

Stiff says the court is another element of the city’s approach to addressing the root causes of homelessness.

“Individuals that have been left out of the system for a long time, they’ve developed a lifestyle that they’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “You have to be able to show them a path that doesn’t include them doing what they do every day and they have done for years.”

Participants in the Community Care Court sign on to a program tailored to their specific needs. That could include a mental health screening, drug and alcohol treatment, or help with housing and employment.

Krystal Frazier is a case manager with Sarasota’s homeless outreach team. She says defendants are offered a chance to have their criminal charges dismissed, but the first step is agreeing to accept help.

“If they opt in and say yes, then we take them out of the courtroom and we have a private conversation with them and discuss with them on what they’re willing to work on that might help resolve them from re-offending again,” she said.

Created in 2014, the City of Sarasota’s homeless outreach program is composed of a City staff case manager and a Sarasota Police Department officer. The two Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT), interact with homeless individuals on a regular basis—-encouraging them off the street and directing them to social services.

Frazier says that Community Care Court is designed to help people experiencing homelessness, not to punish them.

“We try to make sure that there are the least amount of barriers possible to getting them to where they need to be,” she said. “We want the recidivism to be down and we want them to have a better quality of life as well.”

The specialized court is a collaboration with the City of Sarasota, the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, Office of the State Attorney, Office of the Public Defender, Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

The same judge presides over the cases along with the same public defender, state attorney, city attorney, 

homeless outreach coordinator and case managers, so each is familiar with a homeless individual’s situation and progress over time. 

Since it began in January, almost 50 individuals have appeared in the specialized court. Of those, seven did not wish to participate or were not appropriate, six were referred to other specialty courts and six others have had their charges dismissed.

Many jurisdictions are examining the possibility of creating similar court programs. A new Community Court program was also launched in Fort Lauderdale in January.

Additionally, the Yellow Ribbon Homeless Veterans Program, part of the organization Turning Points’ effort to assist homeless citizens in Manatee County, holds a once yearly amnesty court for homeless veterans.

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