Shower Day Shutdown: City of Sarasota Sidelines Streets of Paradise
The official word came down during a nearly hour-long zoom meeting on August 25th. Streets of Paradise would no longer be allowed to hold Shower Day Celebrations within the City of Sarasota. Present at this meeting were:
Greg Cruz, Streets of Paradise President
Cathy Bryant, Streets of Paradise Director of Operations
Tom Barwin, Sarasota City Manager
Marlon Brown, Sarasota Deputy City Manager
Kevin Stiff, Homeless Response Coordinator for the City of Sarasota (heads H.O.T. Team)
From the moment the meeting began, the City’s agenda was clear. Their hands were tied; in order to be code compliant, a permit would be necessary to legally operate our shower truck .… end of story. It would take five to six months to obtain the “major conditional use” permit, IF the City of Sarasota voted to accept our submission. The language used by the city’s employees suggested that there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell … “How did we get here?” Greg Cruz wondered aloud. We had come too far, and worked too hard, to simply give up.
Since they had become aware that mobile shower trailers existed, Streets of Paradise’s president, Greg Cruz and Cathy Bryant, Director of Operations, set their intentions on obtaining one for the homeless community their organization serves. So, SoP, a 501 (C)(3), run entirely by volunteers and supported by 100’s of private, mostly small donors, located a shower truck charity based out of St. Petersburg. A joint effort was soon arranged. In February of 2019, Streets of Paradise and Showered and Empowered held their first joint event benefiting folks living on the streets of Sarasota. Beyond hot showers, volunteers at these gatherings offered personal hygiene items, clean clothing, haircuts, and hot, homemade food. Music and conversation created a celebratory mood, a rarity for those we have come to regard as our “street family.” Cathy fondly recalls a moment when she scanned the crowd on that first shower day, “At the end, you couldn’t tell the difference between the volunteers and our street family. Everyone looked the same!”
Collaborative shower events were held once per month (missing one), through June of 2019. All the while, volunteers found their niches and honed their crafts. They’d be prepared when Streets of Paradise reached its goal. Fundraisers were conducted and Cathy, Greg, and the team kept their eyes on the prize. It would be nearly two years before our magnificent shower trailer arrived. Until then, SoP continued connecting with Sarasota’s homeless population through the street outreach that had always been the organization’s signature. The primary reason for this approach to tackling homelessness was, and remains, to build purposeful relationships with our street family, guiding them toward rehabilitative and housing resources. The ultimate goal, after all, was, and IS, to see the people we love make their way home.
Since January 18th, 2019, Streets of Paradise has been working with the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness. Our role is to provide essential household items for everyday living to formerly homeless individuals/families who have recently been re-homed. We have secured a warehouse, packed with donated useful things, and have been dutifully delivering much needed furniture and electronics, as well as kitchen and bathroom essentials, to grateful humans. It is our utter joy to do so! Thus far, Streets of Paradise has primarily served those in need through Continuum of Care agencies, such as The Salvation Army and Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (H.O.T. Team), but we have always been at liberty to select our own recipients, and have regularly done so; as an independent charity that receives no funding from The Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness, or any other agency, we have never been beholden to anyone. To date, Streets of Paradise has completed 374 “move-ins.” Why is our service so important? It is simple. At the end of a year, a re-homed individual or family is 87% more likely to remain in that fully-furnished environment, rather than returning to life on the street. As it turns out, we humans tend to cling to a life that seems worth living. When we feel as though we have something to lose, we generally work hard to keep it!
Without question, March, April and May of 2020 were the most challenging months that Streets of Paradise has had to face since its inception. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the US was announced on January 21st. Washington State was far away, but the coronavirus had spread so fast in other parts of the world. Streets of Paradise leadership had to act decisively regarding an upcoming obligation to furnish 80 units in Arbor Village, a brand new low-income apartment complex. If we backed out, the residents would not be able to move in; by law, the apartments needed to be furnished first. SoP’s original start date had been scheduled for April 1st, but a proactive decision was made to move it up to March 1st so that our extended family could safely shelter in place.
We went about honoring our promise to the residents of Arbor village and the agencies responsible for housing them. Simultaneously, we increased our food distribution to the streets of Sarasota, going from one night per week to seven. The pandemic raged on. By April 1st, nearly 8,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 had been reported in Florida. Mass resource closures, many of which were faith-based and/or government funded, made for empty bellies on the street. The least of these had been abandoned, it seemed. No longer allowed to congregate in groups of more than 10, this hungry community was forced to scatter throughout the city, into previously unfamiliar territory. We’d find them. Though our crew had diminished significantly, we showed up at the home of Cathy Bryant each evening at 5:30 p.m.; 6-9 volunteers packaged donated meals. Then, 4 to 6 delivered the food, along with water, throughout Sarasota, via the back of a pick-up truck. We’d finish around 8:30. This same process was repeated every evening for 79 days. By May 31st, our final distribution day, approximately 15,000 meals had been served by SoP, while other organizations had remained in lockdown mode.
Most agencies known for working with the homeless reopened by June 1st. By that time, Arbor Village move-ins had been completed and nightly food shares were behind SoP; we all collapsed into a collective heap. Ha! Never! Saturday, June 6th, our custom-made, ADA compliant, two-stall shower trailer, complete with washer and dryer, arrived. On Sunday, June 14th, Streets of Paradise hosted its first independent Shower Day Celebration. The dreams of 100’s of volunteers and even more donors (both small and large) from the Sarasota community had finally come true! Thanks to the Sarasota Fire Station, who had graciously permitted SoP to use their water for free, we were able to hold 9 consecutive Sunday events, providing 230 showers total. Our success mounting, our purposeful relationships cementing, our street family feeling seen and loved (bit by bit), and progress being made with treatment recommendations for some, we were completely confounded by what happened next …
So, back to Greg Cruz’ question, “How did we get here?” The answers given to Cathy and Greg during the zoom meeting with Tom Barwin, Marlon Brown, and Kevin Stiff were inadequate, to say the least. The reasons proffered for the City’s decision to shut down Streets of Paradise’s vital services were simply unacceptable. Kevin Stiff’s original justification for kicking Streets of Paradise to the curb was that operation of the shower trailer on public property violated city code; we needed a permit in order to help our community. At the time of Mr. Stiff’s assertion, he could not cite the type of required permit. Nonetheless, Cathy and Greg hit the pavement, in search of a suitable private space with water access. Luckily, Cathy met up with the regional director of a private agency who offered a lot, complete with water source, for Shower Day Celebrations. SoP was back “on,” not a Sunday skipped. We held our first event at the new location on August 16th. It was perfect. Within a few days, however, Mr. Stiff again interjected himself. Apparently, he was on a personal crusade to shut us down. A “major conditional use” permit would be required to conduct shower days on private property; a code violation had been conveniently found to “fit” Stiff’s objective. Streets of Paradise was sidelined once again.
The aforementioned meeting was scheduled to settle the dispute. Greg’s question was posed. Tom Barwin began by explaining that the City of Sarasota had laws and codes and he cited the “major conditional use” permit. He also stated the City’s stance that SoP’s strategy to cultivate purposeful relationships with folks on the street did not comport with the City’s aim to house said humans. Both Cathy and Greg vehemently disagreed with both assertions and explained why. Basically, what it came down to was that Streets of Paradise, through Shower Day Celebrations, provided essential services to an underserved segment of Sarasota’s community. Our events were not akin to mere street fairs, or some other such activity designed for amusement. Secondly, the meaningful relationships forged between SoP volunteers and their street family had resulted in countless referrals to several specialized agencies that could provide assistance. Members of these very organizations had been invited to our events to see, firsthand, what we do; none had bothered to take us up on our repeated offers. Additionally, SoP had worked hand-in-hand with case managers from agencies charged with facilitating housing. We showed up to furnish spaces after housing was secured; we made the environment habitable, as required by law. We carried our weight.
Cathy and Greg were praised by the Sarasota City Manager and the Deputy City Manager for their tireless efforts in furnishing homes during a pandemic and feeding the homeless, while other agencies had shut down. Words like “awesome” and “heroic” were tossed about, as if flattery would lessen the blow of having invested over $60,000 in community donations on a shower trailer/pick-up that could no longer serve its purpose. According to Barwin, “We have systems in place to provide showers.” He stated that those representing the city weren’t “overly enthusiastic” about SoP’s shower trailer duplicating services that were now readily available in the area. Why, just that afternoon, the Salvation Army had informed him that their organization had “tripled their showering capacity” since their last meeting with Barwin a couple months prior. Sarasota’s City Manager further pointed out that the Resurrection House, which provides showers two days a week, had reopened. So, showers were “now available 7 days a week.” In the view of this committee of three, a mobile shower unit was simply redundant.
Cathy and Greg begged to differ with the committee about SoP’s irrelevance, now that the preferred agencies had reopened their doors. There were two reasons cited that illustrated the importance of street access to showers. The first, presented by Cathy, was a matter of inaccessibility; certain individuals had been trespassed from agencies purported to extend shower “privileges.” Additionally, a few in wheelchairs, who needed extra assistance, had not been getting it through regular channels. Our volunteers were happy to oblige; one of our shower stalls had been designed for that very purpose! On our first shower day, two wheelchair-bound guests were treated to their first showers in over a year! Greg Cruz presented the second rationale for shower trailer support: a reluctance on the part of many to avail themselves of showers that were located in overcrowded, enclosed spaces, which they had deemed unsanitary. The purpose of a shower, after all, is to attend to one’s personal hygiene and well-being. According to those we have served, there is a huge difference between the shower services normally available to them and the experience of showering in SoP’s trailer, which is disinfected with bleach and pressure washed between guests. Homeless folks, just like the rest of the population, fear catching diseases from public showers. Plantar warts, on the bottoms of feet, are a common complaint, as are head lice infestations. Urine and body hair left behind on surfaces are specific sources of worry; these common shower horrors can carry harmful bacteria, after all.
Of course, the risk of catching Covid-19 is of paramount concern these days. The Florida Department of Health just reported 87 new resident deaths on August 17th. This figure was nearly double the number reported a month prior. Florida’s deadliest week resulting from Covid-19 was also reported in August. So, while Florida cases of coronavirus infection have been declining, the death rate has been increasing (Orlando Sentinel: August 17,2020). According to the Florida Department of Health’s own Public Health Advisory, in order to protect ourselves from the coronavirus, we should “avoid closed spaces” (floridahealthcovid19.gov). Our friends on the street know that it isn’t safe to congregate within packed shelters. They’ve told us so. And now a new catastrophe may be on the
horizon. Federal eviction protection has just expired, and September rent is coming due. Massive quantities of newcomers to the street could excessively burden “traditional” resources, for the second time since coronavirus entered the Sunshine State. If this happens,showers will be needed, more than ever.
Streets of Paradise knows that our supporters understand the importance of all aspects of what we do, from feeding people to providing showers to furnishing homes. We sincerely welcome assistance from friends and family to reinstate our Shower Day Celebrations. Facebook “likes” and “shares” are helpful, as are letters to, or other communication with, city officials, newspapers, radio stations, etc. Our community needs us and we need each other.
Please direct your letters to:
Assistant City Manager- Marlon.Brown@sarasotaFL.gov
City Attorney- Robert.Fournier@sarasotaFL.gov
Head of SPD Homeless Outreach Team-Kevin.Stiff@sarasotafl.gov
By Devon Oppenheimer