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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

Sarasota Police's outreach team works to build rapport with the homeless

Group shot of police officers in front of a truck
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
The city’s team, based at police headquarters since 2014, consists of four sworn police officers, a police sergeant, civilian case workers and a coordinator.

Officers and civilians rely on a hierarchy of approaches to help address one the region’s top social problems.

As homeless populations rise in Sarasota and Manatee counties, Sarasota’s Homeless Outreach Team remains a key component in the city, helping those without a roof over their heads find assistance and resources.

The city’s team, based at police headquarters since 2014, consists of four sworn police officers, a police sergeant, civilian case workers and a coordinator. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office operates a similar team in unincorporated areas, and the two agencies frequently collaborate and more frequently communicate.

As the cost of living in Sarasota has risen and affordable housing becomes harder to find, so called point-in-time censuses of the area’s homeless have risen since 2021. Generally, people who are homeless beyond two weeks can begin receiving services, but the team typically focuses on those chronically homeless in the city — those experiencing homelessness for more than a year.

 Head shot of Deidre Jones
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
DeDe Jones

Sarasota’s outreach team relies on a hierarchy of three Es — educate, encourage and, if needed enforce — in reaching out to individuals wherever they are; in the woods, on the street, or committing a crime. Outreach officers offer education on the services that are available to assist them in gaining permanent housing and the laws covering homelessness, encouragement and support in taking the next steps, and legal enforcement, if necessary.

“We really (serve) as a bridge to a lot of services, because we are that outreach team actually going out into (the community),” said coordinator Deidre Jones, who works with the mental health and social services aspects of the team. “(A man we worked with), he just turned 84. He was never issued a birth certificate ... He got his birth certificate, and we were able to get him a housing voucher because he has limited income.

“He served like 40 years in prison for a charge that seems ridiculous to serve 40 years for ... like an aggravated assault back in the 80’s ... When he got out, he had no idea how to use a smartphone. He didn’t understand how to use resources to apply for anything and be able to do it online, so he had a lot of obstacles. We were able to use a housing voucher for him and he has been housed for a year.”

We really (serve) as a bridge to a lot of services, because we are that outreach team actually going out into (the community)
Deidre Jones

Officer Nathan Lynn, one of the officers on the team, said building a rapport is critical.

“You can ask them the hard questions, like, ‘hey, are you taking your medications? Have you used any illegal drugs? I’m not going to arrest you, just tell me what’s going on,’ and they’ll tell me what’s going on with them,” Lynn said.

The transparency and honesty that is exchanged between officers and the people they encounter is a key to making the project work.

 Head shot of Nathan Lynn
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
Nathan Lynn

“They’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I smoked meth and I’m coming off of it,’,” Lynn said, “I always try to get them to voluntarily go for treatment versus us forcing their hand through a Marchman (or Baker) Act, because obviously if they go on their own, they’re most (likely) to have a positive outcome from the treatment and get the help they really need.”

As in other forms of police work, officers say there is no substitute for face-to-face
communication.

“The biggest thing is, we get out of our car and talk to people,’’ Lynn said. “If you don’t do that, you’re driving by a lot of missed opportunities.”

Homeless advocates echo that sentiment.

“Being at street level is key,” said Laura Litoski, facilitator and director of the Bradenton Facing Homelessness chapter. “Both sides need to be able to trust each other in order to form solid relationships and truly connect.”

Litoski, having experienced homelessness herself, is passionate about the mission.

“We're really all just a paycheck away ourselves,” she said.

According to annual reports, Sarasota’s team costs the city of Sarasota $665,875 annually to operate, excluding salaries and other administrative costs.

The HOT team's approach is based on a "housing first" model, which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing. This approach recognizes that housing stability is essential to address other issues that may have led to homelessness, such as mental illnesses or substance abuse.

“The biggest thing is, we get out of our car and talk to people. If you don’t do that, you’re driving by a lot of missed opportunities.”
Nathan Lynn

“We ask them what is going on in their situation,” Jones said, “We kind of assess their situation to make sure that they're safe. We talk to them about how they ended up there or what services that they might need. And at that point, we just let them know, ‘Hey, this is what's available in the area for you.’ ”

The team also provides access to case management, mental health and substance abuse treatment, medical care, and job training and placement.

“Sometimes they've been homeless for 10 years, so to say hey, you should go in to do this, is a little bit difficult,” Jones said. “You have to have a little more context with them for them to trust the system and that we're trying to help them.”

Since HOT began tracking arrest outcomes of crimes related to the homeless population, such as lodging in public, both the number of summonses and the number that have ended in an arrest has diminished.

In 2018, there were 928 summons issued, resulting in 57 arrests, whereas in 2022, the 216 summons issued resulted in 17 arrests, according to the city reports.

This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation. You can reach Catherine Hicks chicks@cncfl.org