Sarasota leaders help homeless veterans

Sarasota, Florida -- Sarasota's Homeless Outreach Teams known as HOT have been reactivated.

"Our goal is to find a program you fit into and get you off the street," Calvin Collins tells a homeless woman sitting on a bench. Collins is HOT's new mental health counselor and senior case manager.

HOT are comprised of two Sarasota Police Officers and Collins. The team has a new approach and a new focus. The goal is to get the 60 estimated homeless veterans off the streets in a year and use the program as a role model to help the 300 remaining homeless in the city.

"The veterans have military bearing lead by example," says Michael, a homeless veteran. Michael says he served in the US Navy for 4 years and has been homeless for more than a year.

Michael thinks HOT will work if the homeless do their part. He says, "It comes down to the individual, has to be committed focused. That's the bottom line."

HOT's says they're committed to help. "We'll take to them on the streets. We're in the hedges, in the highways, in the bamboo shoots. We're doing one on one contact, not doing psycho analyzing, but through talking let them know we care, let them know there's hope."

In March, city commissioners shut down HOT after complaints from homeless rights advocates, but with a "come as you are" shelter a year away city leaders say they had to do something.

"We have vets who are hurting now today, tomorrow, last week, next week. We want to be responsive. Now there's no other way to do it than take the strategy to the streets," says Tom Barwin, Sarasota's City Manager.

Robert Marbut, the city's hired expert on the homeless issue criticized the city's Homeless Outreach Teams for not following his recommendations on how to carry out the program. Barwin says he's tried reaching Marbut about the city's decision but has not heard back from Marbut. "This in no way conflicts with any of Dr. Marbut's recommendations. In fact, if you dive into the report, it integrates all of those recommendations puts them on the fast track."

Besides tapping into veteran's resources, the Salvation Army is setting aside a wing with 18 beds to use as a temporary "comes as you are" shelter while the city and county work on a permanent shelter. The services are there, but some say what's missing is the homeless community's trust."

"Some police officers I've seen it come in are very intimidating," says Michael.

Collins says building trust will take time and patience. "Teach them, educate them in chunks not overwhelm them. Let them restore their dignity again," says Collins.

How would Michael want the HOT team to approach him? He says, "With open arms and non-judgmental just listen. Don't stereotype and judge us before you speak to us. Not all of us are bad apples."

City and County commissioners will meet in a joint session on June 23 at the Sarasota County Administration building. They are expected to decide on a site for the new "come as you are" shelters. The two shelters are located at 1330 Osprey Avenue and 1800 East Avenue.

A report by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness in Manatee and Sarasota Counties shows as of January there are 127 homeless veterans in the Sarasota. The report says there are 1,550 homeless veterans in Manatee and Sarasota Counties and 44% of them served in the Army. According to the report, most of the Veterans are from the Vietnam War and later wars after that.

City officials are coordinating with local veterans groups for services and are asking local businesses to help with employing homeless veterans in the program. Anyone interested in helping should call Sarasota City Hall and contact the City Manager's office at 941-954-4102.

Homeless resources:


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