On a recent sunny winter day on a downtown Sarasota street corner, a cluster of homeless men lounged on the back steps of a building, grimy backpacks and bags at their feet, while a few folks ambled to the nearby bus station.
Parked at a meter just feet from them was a red Ferrari and around the corner was Sur la Table, an upscale cookware store offering $400 juicers.
Newer, wealthy residents in the Gulf Coast city known for its arts scene and beautiful beaches are buying expensive downtown condos so they can live an urban lifestyle — but don't want the problems associated with a city, including the 700 or so homeless people who inhabit the county, the American Civil Liberties Union and others contend.
They also say authorities, including police, are trying to harass the homeless into leaving the town of 53,000 full-time residents.
Recently, the ACLU uncovered a surveillance video showing an officer throwing a homeless man against a metal grate and received public records that show officers sent messages to each other about "bum hunting."
"We thought those messages were beyond just being juvenile, but was sort of indicative of the atmosphere that existed in the city," said Michael Barfield, the legal chair of the ACLU in Sarasota.
To be sure, other warm-weather cities have grappled with problems associated with the homeless. In Florida, Key West has periodically cracked down on "quality of life" offenses such as aggressive panhandling and using residents' outdoor showers. Miami-Dade County counted nearly 4,000 homeless people either sleeping on the street or in shelters within its borders one year ago.
Barfield said that in the past 18 months, the city has targeted the homeless by removing benches and banning smoking in downtown parks and arrested a homeless man for charging his cellphone on a city-owned outlet in a park. The charge was later dropped.
"I think for a long time we've had a lot of issues. The fact that we have a lot of wealthy people downtown, we have a few condos that cater to that type of people, and they're not quite used to dealing with the lowly and downtrodden," said Steve McAllister, a Sarasota native who says he chooses to be homeless and live a lifestyle based on bartering. "And so when we have homeless people come here because of the weather or the opulence or whatnot, we get a lot of clashes between the two classes."
The ACLU has filed five lawsuits against the city — some have been settled and the smoking ban has been struck down by a judge.
Police Chief Bernadette DiPino — who took the helm of the department in late December — says the agency is conducting an internal investigation of both police issues raised by the ACLU.
"The city of Sarasota is working aggressively to learn as much as it can to learn about homeless issues in this community," DiPino said. "There's been a number of complaints from citizens and business owners about people who are sleeping or on the sidewalks or are begging for money. We try to apply the appropriate response to the complaints we're getting from citizens."
She and other city officials say Sarasota actually offers many more services to the homeless than other communities. Officials point to statistics that show there have been about 25,000 instances of documented police contact with the homeless between 2004 and 2012, with 1,416 people referred to various social service programs by officers.
DiPino said that like other communities, Sarasota must balance its responsibility to help people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues with keeping other residents safe and happy.
Phil Grande is a downtown business owner and one-time resident who spearheaded the effort to remove benches from the parks.
Grande, a syndicated radio host, in 2010 purchased an expensive condo in the same building as his downtown studio. He quickly noticed that student groups fed the homeless in a nearby park and that people congregated near the library, used drugs and hassled people on the street.
He said the troublemakers are often aggressive, younger men.
"This isn't a homeless problem," Grande said. "The homeless are pretty much taken care of. This is a vagrant situation."
Grande said there was a "parade" of homeless from the bus station to the library. Many business owners complained to the city and Grande contends leaders were reluctant to take action because they were "very liberal" and didn't want more downtown development. At one point, a frustrated Grande chartered a bus for the homeless and drove them from downtown to a million-dollar neighborhood where one city official lived — and proceeded to feed the homeless in front of the official's home.
Eventually, the benches were taken out of the parks.
"Once the benches were removed, the parade really diminished," he said.
Grande sold his condo and now lives in a gated community. He said he's donated time, money and food to homeless programs, including an offer of buying a building where the city and groups could distribute food — an offer, he said, that was rejected by officials.
Leslie Loveless, the interim executive director of the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, said part of the problem is that because Sarasota is such an upscale area, inexpensive housing is difficult to find, even if a homeless person were to snag a job.
"We need to look at transitional and permanent housing that's affordable," she said.
The Center for Housing Policy concluded that in late 2011, only 28 percent of the jobs in the area could earn enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment. To qualify as "affordable," rent must be less than 30 percent of monthly income.
Some of the homeless contend that only a few troublemakers cause all problems, while the rest are trying to extricate themselves from the cycle of joblessness and poverty. James Franklin Jr. spends his days on a bench outside City Hall — and says he's never had issues with officers or city officials. Still, Franklin said he's concerned about the overall societal attitudes about the homeless.
"I've been homeless, I've been a vagrant and now I'm a bum that's being hunted by bum hunters. You know, call me what you're going to call me, but quit switching me up," he said. "Call me James Franklin Jr., whether my situation is good or bad. I respect you and I expect you to respect me."
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