County combats growing homeless situation

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By Phil Colpas

The Sarasota County Commission is taking steps to help the area’s homeless population.

It’s a rapidly growing problem in the region.

The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness was formed by community leaders from Sarasota and Manatee counties in 2005, with the ambitious vision of ending homelessness in the region. The problem has been greatly exacerbated during the past two years by both the pandemic and skyrocketing rents.

Suncoast Partnership CEO Chris Johnson recently spoke to the county commission about the growing need for local affordable housing. “We have run into a first for our community, and that is since the inception of the family shelter system, we have not had a waiting list for family shelters, so parents with children were always able to access shelter,” he said. “As of right now, that is no longer true.”

Although his office took 70 calls during the first week of this year from families facing homelessness, there were only two shelter beds available, he said. “That means 68 families are going to be in a car, in a hotel, or on the street, because we don’t have the affordable housing on the other end. The struggle has been that the families get stuck in shelters, because there’s nowhere else for them to go from there,” Johnson said.

In November and December, respectively, 79% and 76% of the calls coming in to the Suncoast Partnership were first-time homeless families, he reported.

“These are folks that have never been in the system before, and now have nowhere to go,” Johnson said.

Johnson had his housing specialist took a look at the current market, utilizing its database of all of the units and landlords the partnership works with, and found that 70% of those units that are available are above fair market rent.

“That means that we can’t leverage $4 million in rapid rehousing money to house families, because they don’t allow us to go over FMR (fair market rent),” Johnson said. “We’re currently under a waiver for FMR from HUD, but that expires March 31. After that, we’re stuck; we have no way to house families if they are above FMR. We can’t even pay extra if we wanted to; the federal government doesn’t allow us to do that.”

Johnson relayed a story of a father of two who has been living in a hotel since August. “He has drained $20,000 from his savings account. He has nothing left, trying to keep a roof over his kids’ heads because he couldn’t access affordable housing. He has a job, he’s working, he’s taking care of two kids, but just has nowhere to go,” Johnson said. “And so that family is more vulnerable now with no savings than they were when they entered the system in the first place and had to go to a hotel.

“We are at a new place for our community — this is something that’s never happened to us before. That is why we ask – implore – the county to really consider those funds for affordable housing.”

In the wake of the pandemic, Sarasota County is receiving approximately $84 million from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act. The county surveyed residents and businesses to identify the most pressing needs that these funds could help. County commissioners heard public comments and analyzed the data, directing staff to come back with recommendations to allocate a significant portion of the funds to address the affordable housing crisis.

In December, the county identified $50.2 million in funding allocations and programs to keep and initiate, including maintaining $5 million for affordable housing and $5 million for mental health, and directed staff to identify allocation options for the remaining $34 million.

Staff recommended an additional $20 million for affordable housing projects, and $3 million for mental health programs.

Phil Colpas
Author: Phil Colpas

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