Manatee County’s three major governments brainstorm solutions to homelessness
Written by WSLR News on Thursday, August 3, 2023
The gentrification of Bradenton has sparked discussions on relocating services for the homeless, most of which are within city limits. This is prompting meetings between city governments on how to best tackle homelessness.
By Sophia Brown
Original Air Date: August 2, 2023
Johannes Werner: The Riverwalk, the farmers market and other amenities have boosted the quality of life in downtown Bradenton, and that is attracting luxury development. That gentrification in turn has prompted discussions about the relocation of services for the homeless, most of which are within the limits of the city of Bradenton and near downtown. And that in turn is now prompting a substantial discussion between Manatee County governments about how best to tackle homelessness. Sophia Brown has more on this.
Host: On Monday, three of Manatee County’s most influential government bodies sat down to tackle something that the Manasota area is infamous for: homelessness. With an estimated 500 homeless families and 1,500 homeless students in the county, the Manatee County Commissioners, School Board and City Council of Bradenton discussed possibilities for a new homeless shelter.
But much like Sarasota, addressing the causes of homelessness and the ongoing affordable housing crisis proved to be less straightforward.
$41 million were recently awarded to Manatee County as part of a National and State Prescription Opioid Litigation settlement. With these funds, the old Manatee County Sheriff’s Office in District Two is set to be converted into a homeless shelter specifically for families with children. That location is four miles south of downtown Bradenton.
The sheriff’s office is already equipped with 40 10×10 rooms, 26 bathrooms and a commercial kitchen, and $850,000 have already been spent on renovations. It is expected to hold capacity for about 30 families. Members of the school board also discussed the possibility of setting up a bus stop for students out front, and one other commissioner was looking into establishing a community garden.
The plan is for the City Commissioners, School Board and Bradenton City Council to create the physical shelter, and then hand its maintenance over to one or several private organizations such as Turning Point USA or the Salvation Army, says County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
Kevin Van Ostenbridge: It seems like everyone’s kind of taking this on to put their own touch on it, and I think it’s going to fill a tremendously needed void in our community. We don’t mind doing the one-time capital outlay on a project and getting it built out, and then doing it public-private partnership with an organization like the Salvation Army where they come in and run it. Because we don’t necessarily want to be in the business. However, we do understand that they don’t have the resources to build a facility or create a facility from nothing.
Host: The joint committee also discussed bringing in tutors so students temporarily out of school would have no gaps in their education, or having the shelter host nonprofits that can help residents find jobs or provide substance abuse and mental health treatment.
But the elephant in the room is that, while Manatee County was awarded this $41 million to fight opioid and substance abuse, it wasn’t able to secure funding dedicated to helping stop homelessness before it starts. Vice Chair of the Manatee County School Board Cindy Spray pointed out that poverty is one of the main, if not the main cause of homelessness, and that additional funds to aid people in paying for rent or utilities could have gone a long way.
Cindy Spray: I know one of the legislative priorities that was brought to our delegation last year was, I think, $200,000 for prevention. People about to be evicted, people that need a service, but we don’t have enough counselors and/or staff to accommodate that. And I know that was huge on the list, but it didn’t get any funding.
Host: Also mentioned several times throughout the meeting is how rising rents aren’t just affecting the working poor. City Commissioner George W. Kruse was one of several members to bring up how a recent candidate for Manatee County Administrator chose to drop out of the running due to the cost of living in the county.
George W. Kruse: It’s a lot easier to fix homelessness when people aren’t homeless in the first place, and having affordable places to live. I know we just had one of our applications for County Administrator drop out because he said it’s just not affordable to live here.
Host: Manatee County has an area median income of about $98,700. This means that, technically, $2,000 per month in rent is what can be considered affordable.
Even so, this clearly is not cutting it for many, and Kruse urged the joint committee to consider ways that they can contribute to lightening the load of the average Manatee resident.
GK: We all need to do our part, I believe, and we have a long ways to go, but the county is making a proactive attempt. We’ve went through Livable Manatee, we’ve been waiving every impact fee we can come up with, waiving permitting fees, you name it. We’ve been taking the excess land we have been trying to find people to use it to build, and we’ve been trying to increase density and height. I think that we need everyone to be looking at the excess land that they’ve got, I know there there is some, and figuring out how it can best be utilized for for housing, whether it be workforce, affordable, you name it, and people need to start looking at the fees that they’re charging people and being willing to take their hit along with us.
Host: Affordable housing is going to be especially critical for educators, as Manatee County is currently on track to build five new schools in five years, estimated to draw in 800 to 1,000 new employees. When even an administrative candidate cannot afford to live in Manatee County, young professionals that could help the staff these schools also seem likely to look for opportunities elsewhere.
The sole public commenter, Glen Gibellina, sums up the issues at hand and the disconnect between the joint committee and the average Manatee resident.
Glen Gibellina: Rising rents, not mental health issues or addiction, are driving the homelessness. Your new homelessness are the baby boomers. They’re going to be the entry level school teachers. They cannot sustain $2,000 rents. Rent is the number one issue that is causing homelessness. The plumber, the firemen, they’re gonna be your next homeless because they cannot keep up.
We heard it today, one of the administrators dropped out. Starting salary of $205,000 and he can’t afford to live here. What does that tell you about the rest of the service industry?
Host: This has been Sophia Brown reporting for WSLR News.