Homeless activity in Turtle Beach Park noticed by residents
By Roger Drouin
Ray Gazaway recently watched a group of homeless individuals at Turtle Beach Park camping on picnic tables, using public bathroom areas to shower, urinating in the pavilion, and drinking at Turtle Beach Park over several weeks.
The situation had Gazaway, who lives in a condo near the park, concerned for several reasons. As the mercury rose, he was worried about the condition of the individuals in the extreme summer heat. “I got worried because the heat was so bad,” said Gazaway, who also had concerns about the men and women drinking, leaving behind what he described as a pile of discarded beer cans at the beach park that’s often used by children and families.
Often, “there was a picnic table full of empty beers by noon,” Gazaway told Siesta Sand. Volunteers cleaning the area, Gazaway said, had also found some indications that the homeless individuals were using drugs. Other residents who walk the beach in the morning began to notice the group camping in the park.
At the end of June, Gazaway contacted the Siesta Key Association (SKA) — mainly to notify the group about the situation. In turn, SKA representatives contacted county officials including the Division Manager of Beaches & Water Access, who in turn notified Wayne Applebee, the county’s homeless services director and a deputy who works in the area.
Gazaway told Siesta Sand that the homeless individuals appeared to be gone, as of press time in late July, trash was cleaned up, and there was no more illegal camping on the picnic tables. Gazaway emphasized that he hopes some individuals are willing to utilize resources that can help them — such as programs at the Salvation Army in downtown — but the open intoxication and activities such as urinating in the park’s pavilion should not be tolerated by the community.
He is hopeful that if nearby residents and county officials remain vigilant “we can nip it in the butt, and in the long run maybe help some people.”
In a series of responses, Sarasota County officials let SKA representatives know they are monitoring the situation. For the past few years, the city of Sarasota and the county have been struggling with finding long-term solutions to the problem of chronic homelessness in the county.
Catherine Luckner, vice president of the SKA, said she noticed that the county responded quickly to the resident’s concerns. The Sheriff’s Office, Luckner said, has responded with “the greatest of compassion and respect” as they contacted homeless people. She said they talked with individuals, instead of just arresting them.
Applebee said he believed this was the first and only complaint he knows of regarding homeless people at Turtle Beach. He said after a notification, the Sheriff's Housing Initiative Facilitating Transient Services (SHIFTS) and outreach workers would visit with homeless people to see if they are interested in any services that could help them. “Social service workers would go out and engage with the folks and see if they are interested in any services,” Applebee told Siesta Sand.
“If a person is eligible and willing to work with the program, we would bring them in and the SHIFTS program offers temporary housing, and we work on things like employment or getting disability benefits they may qualify for,” Applebee said. “The goal is to get them stabilized and self sufficient, and then assist them in finding a housing situation that meets their needs. That is a voluntary program, and they have to be willing to go and see professionals and work on self sufficiency.”
Applebee noted that, “whether people have a home or don’t have a home they are allowed to be in public spaces, as long as not breaking any rules or laws.”
Sarasota County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Mruczek, in charge of the Sheriff’s Office operations on the Key replied in a June 26 email to Luckner, vice president of the SKA: “We will continue to monitor that area and take appropriate action whenever we find any laws or ordinances being violated. We will also be working with outside groups to see what other options may be available to homeless persons seeking services. I will let you know of any results we’ve had in the coming weeks.”
Shawn Yeager, Division Manager of Beaches & Water Access at the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, wrote in an email to Luckner: “Again, thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention. Our staff will continue to monitor as well.”
The Sheriff’s Office reports that they have conducted outreach as a result of the email from SKA back in June. There were three individuals identified who regularly visit Turtle Beach that are experiencing homelessness, none have a desire to enter program services when it was offered to them.
“… Of course, please always encourage park patrons to contact the Sheriff’s Office at the time the situation is occurring (9-1-1 or 941-316-1201).