City, local agencies collaborate to start Florida's first homeless court
Contact: Jan Thornburg, Sr. Communications Manager 941-954-2613
Sarasota, FL: To help address the root causes of chronic homelessness, the City of Sarasota launched the first homeless court in the state of Florida in collaboration with 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 court recently marked its six-month anniversary.
Known as Community Care Court, cases are limited to homeless individuals charged with minor criminal activity within the Sarasota city limits.
Homeless individuals facing non-violent misdemeanors or criminal violations of the Sarasota City Code, such as open container, trespassing, lodging out of doors, and public urination, may be eligible for this specialized court, which focuses on causes and solutions for homelessness. Individuals who volunteer to opt into the program may be diverted into available social service programs in the region’s Continuum of Care and other service providers for mental health screening, drug/alcohol assessment, employment and housing opportunities.
“This is one of the first specialized courts of its kind in Florida focusing on a path to end homelessness,” said County Court Judge David Denkin of Community Care Court and the 12th Judicial Circuit. “If we truly want to end homelessness then we invest in prevention and support communities and programs to implement these life changing efforts.”
With an eye on continuity, a dedicated team of legal and homelessness professionals is assigned to Community Care Court. The same judge presides over the cases along with the same public defender, state attorney, city attorney, homeless outreach coordinator and case managers – all becoming familiar with a homeless individual’s situation and progress over time.
“The criminal justice system is very busy,” said Kevin Stiff, City of Sarasota Homelessness Response Coordinator. “It is nearly impossible for the system to identify the frequency and challenges some clients may have. Clients can appear in front of numerous different judges and attorneys in one year’s time. The continuity with the Community Care Court allows for the same team to be aware of the number of times each client is offending, the type of charges, and location of the offenses. This knowledge will help determine what services can be offered to break the cycle of criminal behavior or the client’s unwillingness to avoid unacceptable behavior.”
The Community Care Court team meets regularly to share case progress reports and make recommendations to the judge regarding compliance. Upon completion of designated social service programs, the misdemeanor charge may be dismissed without a fine or the penalty reduced.
“Community Care Court is yet another way to attempt to end the costly circle with revolving door chronic homeless individuals who are repeat code and law violators in Sarasota,” said City Manager Tom Barwin. “Some of these individuals have been cited as many as 90 times for various infractions. Our Homeless Outreach Teams with street level social workers have reached out to most of these individuals repeatedly, offering assistance to get them off the street and into a safe, healthy living environment. But, they continue to reside on the street. This specialized court provides a real opportunity to better address the root cause of the individual’s homelessness through the criminal justice system which they defaulted into.”
The Sarasota Community Care Court began Jan. 8, 2019. Since that time, 21 individuals voluntarily entered the program and five successfully graduated with the criminal charges dismissed. Three were successfully housed.
“Already we’re seeing real impact in people’s lives and in our community,” said Joe Polzak, Assistant City Attorney. “After declining the many social services available through outreach and pre-arrest diversion, these individuals, while faced with the possibility of serving time, have the option to engage assistance where they can be assessed and treated, and ultimately, placed into employment and appropriate housing.”
The American Bar Association recently adopted a resolution urging local courts to adopt homeless court programs as a way to help transition chronic homeless from the streets through social services and ultimately to self-sufficiency.
“We are pleased to partner with the City of Sarasota in identifying, assessing and offering services to those homeless individuals that enter the criminal justice system,” said Ed Brodsky, State Attorney of the 12th Judicial Circuit. “We hope through this partnership to help end homelessness for those we serve.”
Community Care Court differs from Comprehensive Treatment Court (CTC) in that CTC is a jail diversion program solely for misdemeanor offenders with chronic mental illness.
The Gulf Coast Community Foundation generously donated $15,000 toward the cost of Community Care Court.
“We can’t overlook the less visible and more vulnerable in our communities, so it is imperative that philanthropy is part of the solution to this community-wide issue,” said Jon Thaxton, Gulf Coast Community Foundation Senior Vice President for Community Investment.
Created in 2014, the City of Sarasota’s homeless outreach program has become a national model for cities seeking jail diversion programs by emphasizing the 3 E’s: education, encouragement and enforcement. Two Homeless Outreach Teams (HOT), comprised of a City staff case manager and Sarasota Police Department officer, interact with homeless individuals on a regular basis encouraging them off the street by offering to connect them with available social services through outreach and pre-arrest diversion. Through an agreement with The Salvation Army, 20 beds are reserved for the chronic homeless who need shelter. Those interested in a bed may be transported to The Salvation Army rather than cited. Also, in conjunction with The Salvation Army, the City supports the Street Teams, a program that provides a safe, stable environment and work experience for the homeless.
Through strong partnerships with the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness and the Continuum of Care, coupled with the community’s commitment, homelessness in the Sarasota city limits has decreased by over 50 percent in the past four years, according to the Point in Time homeless count conducted in January 2019 by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness.
In Sarasota, there is a path to end homelessness for those individuals willing to engage with the many programs available, including the newly established Community Care Court.
About the City of Sarasota: Distinguished by U.S. News and World Report as the 18th Best Place to Live in the U.S., the City of Sarasota is a diverse community located on Florida’s Suncoast with 55,000 year-round residents, several internationally recognized cultural arts venues, stunning sunsets along Lido Beach, a 45-hole municipal golf course at the historic Bobby Jones Golf Club, and Major League spring training baseball with the Baltimore Orioles. Learn more about us at www.SarasotaFL.Gov