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Homeless in Paradise

By Debbie Flessner

In March of this year, the City of Sarasota shut down a homeless encampment in the city and moved its residents to the Salvation Army for a period of 30 days. What happened after that was something that surprised absolutely no one–the homeless moved on to other local areas.

One of those spots was Siesta Key, home of one of the most renowned and visited beaches in the world. As it turns out, Siesta is not only attractive to international travelers, for some, it’s a place where you can get a free handout.

“Lance” rolls along the wide sidewalks in Siesta Village in his wheelchair, collecting food, cash and even gift cards from concerned passersby. He was one of the few homeless people who were living on Siesta Key before the City of Sarasota crackdown. But many business owners in the Village fear that letting Lance sit outside the front door, in his condition, may be a deterrent for potential customers wishing to enter.

Community leaders and business owners are hesitant to comment on the issue of the homeless in the Village, some for fear of retribution, and others because they don’t want to be labeled as insensitive. But the fact is, Lance, and others who have come to live in the streets and on the lawns of Siesta, are upsetting quite a few people.

One of those is both a Siesta Key community leader and a resident named “Steve.”

“I’ve seen people stop and give him food and cigarettes, but those people don’t realize he also urinates and defecates on the sidewalk, in the bushes or wherever he is,” he said. “The fact is, you can’t enable the homeless by giving them handouts, and Lance is a prime example of that. He has been approached by countless county offices to offer him assistance, and he turns them down.”

Why? Because apparently, he has it much better on the streets of the Island than in a shelter. But while the City of Sarasota has just recently proposed the advent of an advisory committee to help get homeless people off the streets, the people displaced from the previous downtown shelter are filtering out to other places, like Siesta Key.

As it turns out, Lance may be the least of the problems for Siesta business owners, when it comes to the homeless situation. A maintenance manager for a large property management company on the Key said that vagrants have not only been sleeping on benches in front of his company’s offices and leaving beer cans and cigarettes, but they have been trespassing around and in their rental properties.

“They’re pretty knowledgeable about who is in town (and in the buildings) and who is not–they just wait until nighttime to see who is here,” “Mike” said. “I’ve even caught them having sex on our porches (of rental houses). I said something to them and they just walked on the other side of the bushes and started up again.”

Apparently, it’s not really necessary for the property to be empty to be a target for unwanted visitors. Mike said he had some friends staying in one of his company’s properties and the man of the family was lying on the couch taking a nap while his wife and children were out. In the middle of his nap, a vagrant walked right in the door, telling him that she was just there to look around the place.

Siesta Key business owners say they have brought up their concerns to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office at the Siesta Key Village Association meetings, and don’t feel they’re getting the help they need. But part of the problem may well be that instead of just shooing the homeless off their property, they should be putting in an immediate call to the Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s important to remember that homelessness itself is not a crime, however anyone trying to solicit funds, causing property damage/vandalism, drinking where prohibited, etcetera, is certainly something we need to be notified of as it happens,” said Wendy Rose, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman. “Residents and business owners need to report any suspicious or problematic activity to the non-emergency number. That way, deputies can make contact with the subject, get their identification, check for warrants or existing trespass warnings and take appropriate action.”

She added that it’s important for property owners to ensure that the proper trespass warnings are posted–just so there’s no confusion.

“There is nothing wrong with politely encouraging people who are trespassing on private property to move along,” she said.  “But it’s always safer though to call us and let deputies handle it.”

For any questions or concerns about the Sheriff’s Office policies, call the non-emergency at 941-316-1201.