Sarasota Cops' Holistic Homeless Program

Through a holistic homeless program, cops "educate, encourage and enforce," resulting in 11,370 outreach engagements with Sarasota's homeless.


PHILADELPHIA — The Sarasota Police Department's Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T.) program brings together police officers and social workers to enable homeless individuals to get access to services they desperately need. The award-winning holistic homeless program has transformed the department’s relationship with homelessness and homeless people, reducing the homeless population by 61 percent in Sarasota since 2015.

Homelessness is not a police problem but we are looked at as being the ones to solve the problem because we are the ones answering the phones 24/7,” said Chief Bernadette DiPino.

At the 124th annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference Chief of Police Bernadette DiPino, Police Legal Advisor Joseph Polzak and Patrol Division Captain Kevin Stiff discussed how the H.O.T. program enables law enforcement officers to educate the community about available services, encourage referral and diversion and enforce the criminal code – three Es of the H.O.T. program's integrated mission.

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From Removing Benches to Implementing Best Practices

Here is a summary of the session's key points.

#1 Understand the challenges homelessness poses your community.

Many people move to Florida to escape the brutal winters in other parts of the country. This also applies to the homeless population. When Chief DiPino relocated from Maryland to Florida five years ago she could not believe the severity of the homeless problem in Sarasota. “The streets were filled with homeless individuals and, as the police chief, 80 percent of my time was spent handling the homeless crisis, which included many complaints from business and citizens,” DiPino said.

#2 Look to the experts for guidance.

DiPino was also leading an agency that had received national media attention about its alleged mistreatment of the homeless. The community and media believed the police were trying to arrest their way out of dealing with the homeless problem and faced legal challenges from the ACLU about policies and procedures.

“Despite the fact that there were homeless people stabbing each other, using gasoline to set each other on fire and numerous rapes in the homeless camps, Sarasota was named the meanest city for homeless in the U.S. in 2005,” DiPino said. At that time, the city had banned people from sleeping on benches in public spaces and even removed the benches.

“We had an obligation as law enforcement officers to do the right thing and find a holistic way to help individuals,” DiPino said. The first step was hiring an attorney as a legal advisor and selecting a patrol captain to:

  • Identify best practices for managing the homeless population implemented by other police departments around the country
  • Develop standardized policies and procedures
  • Visit shelters, especially come-as-you-are shelters, to understand how they function and impact the surrounding community

#3 Be ready for monsters.

The monster for Sarasota was Michael Pottinger v the City of Miami, a critically important case in the city of Miami that wreaked a lot of havoc.

The plaintiffs alleged that Miami had a policy of harassing homeless people and routinely seized and destroyed their property in violation of their constitutional rights. A settlement between the homeless of Miami and the City of Miami provided for police training, law enforcement contracts with the homeless, record keeping, an advisory committee and $600,000 compensation for the homeless.

Sarasota PD knew that the documentation requirement – showing how many contacts police officers had with the homeless in regard to providing information about diversion services – was imperative to the success of its H.O.T. program.

How H.O.T. Decreases Homelessness

The H.O.T. program is a system that involves the following:

  • Outreach through deployment of social services
  • Provision of diversion opportunities
  • Case management
  • Enforcement of local codes

The program has an integrated mission to:

  • Educate about social services
  • Encourage referral to those services through outreach and diversion
  • Enforce the criminal code on those who break the law and not use the services

While the police officers and social workers assigned to the H.O.T. program do the majority of the outreach, every police officer is trained in how to interact with the homeless. Officers receive education every year on what social services are available so they can educate individuals.

By policy, homeless individuals who have contact with law enforcement can get a ride to the Salvation Army or to other services, or have a social worker connect with them.

This program is voluntary. Individuals have three nights free in the program if they agree to meet with a case manager. After the third day, if the individual does not want additional services, they leave. If the person is willing to meet with a case manager and help develop a plan for them to enter the continuum of care, the individual receives an additional four days in the program.

“We are not a services organization, so we don’t offer services after that week,” Stiff said, “but we are a bridge to services. Creating an effective homeless crisis response system means incorporating the existing social services architecture into what we do. We measure success through the education we deliver to the homeless. We are changing the way we measure the performance of policing.”

In 2016, Sarasota police officers documented 11,370 contacts with homeless individuals where officers were able to educate those people about available services. Of that number, 951 stayed at the Salvation Army shelter with approximately 60 percent requesting additional services from the available continuum of care.

The department also started a Homeward Bound program, where they paid for homeless people to return to their families. So far, 106 people have been sent home since October 2015.

Learn more about the H.O.T. program on Sarasota PD's website.

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