Thursday, August 21, 2008

Homeless go back on the streets: After three weeks, Sarasota officials shut down shelter.

For one month, about 30 homeless people in Sarasota had a place to stay. At just $11 a night, they got bathroom and kitchen facilities, a common room, an outside picnic area and twice-weekly dinners. Right downtown, to boot, in the foothills of high-rise condos.

"We're at the doorstep of opulence," the group's pastor said.

It was a simple, easy solution, remarkably fortunate for the homeless, and too good to last.

City officials kicked them out last week. They said the downtown area isn't zoned for short-term housing. Now, the group pools together what little money it's gathered, mostly from day labor, to try and rent a few hotel rooms. They held a flea market on Saturday to raise money for tents.

This collective was formed by Tim Huffman, manager of Renaissance Self-storage on Boulevard of the Arts. Huffman himself was living in a converted space in one of the buildings he manages. He began to notice that a number of his customers were renting space just to lock up their bedding in the daytime and bring it back out at night.

"It broke my heart," he said. "These are the people that were my customers, and I was like, 'Why are they dragging pillows in here every day?'"

So about a month ago, he formed the Haven of Rest Homeless Shelter on the south side of the road, converting unused offices and storage rooms to living space. Huffman shared his room with three others.

He didn't allow drug or alcohol use, and he compelled the residents to either find day labor or work for him. Zach Evans, a sort of a-religious preacher, delivered a message to them twice a day in the parking lot. Everyone came (and still does) to hear him exhort them to wake up, to love life, to realize that even nothingness is a gift.

And then he urges them into action. Huffman paraphrases his message thusly: "Now that we're helping you, what are you going to do to help somebody today?"

But soon the group started getting visits from the police. Apparently, says Huffman, the residents of nearby buildings were calling in to say that their favorite strolling grounds had gotten scary.

The group's response? They built a makeshift public park.

Walk by the storage center and you'll see the Haven of Rest Park in a cleared-out ditch, in front of the facility's parking lot. There's a black plastic pool with feeder fish swimming into it. A hose connected to a sump pump runs up to a fiberglass boulder, forming a not unpretty fountain topped by a stone angel. There are decorative iron candle stands, turtle figurines and benches sitting on canted wood palettes. Flowering plants scavenged from a nearby ditch have been transplanted into the perimeter. It's not going to win a beauty contest, but it beats the overgrown trash pit that was there before.

"It was going to be completely donated and maintained by the homeless of Sarasota County, just to show that we want to give back, that we are not people to be feared," Huffman said.

The park remains unfinished. Officials from the city planning department started coming by the building, first with claims of fire hazards, then with the immitigable complaint that the shelter was in the wrong zoning district.

"Downtown does not allow for short-term housing," said Gretchen Schneider, general manager of planning and development for the city.

The only solution was to get a zoning text amendment, which would require numerous public hearings and ultimately the deliberation of the City Commission. Huffman didn't have that kind of time, and early last week, the group moved out of the storage facility.

When Huffman was collecting rent from the homeless, he brought in about $300 a day. He'd wake them up in the morning and drive them in a van to the labor pool. Since they were evicted, Huffman says, not as many of them have been working, whether for lack of Huffman's discipline or because they're too exhausted from sleeping on the street.

"They don't sleep very well when they're on the street because they're afraid of getting beat up or arrested," he said.

But Huffman has still been collecting some money after Evans' sermons. Those who contributed to the group, with cash or with labor, got to stay four to a hotel room.

They function like a commune that way, on a system of unspoken debts and repayments. "We all look out for each other," says Anthony Edwards, whom Huffman is helping to cope with alcoholism and manic tendencies. "If they don't have something, I help them out. If I don't have something, they help me out."

The group is now seeking help from stores like Lowe's, Home Depot and Goodwill, where they hope to obtain discounted or donated tents. Their temporary plan is to camp out at Oscar Scherer State Park. Huffman will be joining them.

"This is the cheapest way for us to be safe without being arrested," he said.

In the long-term, Huffman's got his eye on a vacant hotel on U.S. 41. Using money that the collective pools together, he plans to lease the space and house up to 60 homeless people.

"We're not askin' for a handout," Huffman said. "We really want to earn our way. We're just need a place to rest and figure out how we're going to do it.

by Justin Richards

Published 08.20.2008

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