Coronavirus Florida: Organizations still help homeless during stay-at-home order

SARASOTA — Three weeks ago Bill English was a ride supervisor at the Belle City Amusements and excited to finish the winter season and return home to Kansas. Having just left the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, English was ready to switch on the rides at Robarts Arena when he got the call.

After a deluge of criticism, the Sarasota County Fair was canceled — less than an hour before it was scheduled to open. English and 80 others were let go, some of the earliest economic victims of the systematic effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“I was a supervisor with money to burn,” said English. “Now I’m on the street getting handouts.”

English stood on the narrow sidewalk outside the Salvation Army on 10th Street in Sarasota. He was one of the hundreds waiting for dinner in a line that wrapped around the block.

Cathy Bryant, director of operations, stood on the opposite end of the line handing out plates of cheese hamburgers, chicken legs, macaroni and cheese and salad.

“It’s not just people out on the street that are coming, it’s people who are now feeding four children with meals that would have been provided by the school,” said Bryant. “It’s people who have been recently housed or lost their job — the numbers keep growing.”

In the face of volunteer and food donation shortages at other area nonprofits, churches and human-service organizations have scaled back or halted services during the pandemic. That’s forced Streets of Paradise and others still able to operate to ramp up services.

By day the nonprofit is hurrying to furnish apartments and homes for roofless adults in Sarasota County to get them off the street. By night they’re on Ninth Street and Central Avenue feeding those who can’t yet be housed. They used to do it one night a week. Now it’s every night.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday announced a stay-at-home order for Floridians. The order specifically exempts workers who support food, shelter and social services. Streets of Paradise and other homeless advocates will continue to operate.

“It’s like telling the doctors not to help people,” Bryant said. “It’s what we do. We’re required by ethics to show up and be here.”

There have been several saving graces in recent weeks for organizations that aim to prevent homelessness such as St. Vincent de Paul Society in Venice.

The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package, which is expected to begin April 9, will help some Sarasota County residents stay in their homes, said Gerry Walsch, vice president of the Epiphany Cathedral Our Lady of Lords Conference.

The governor’s suspension of foreclosures and evictions for 45 days will also help slow things down. So will Florida Power and Light’s plans not to cut off electricity for overdue bills during the coronavirus crisis.

“This is just a temporary fix, and going into the summer months, that need normally triples or quadruples,” Walsch said. “With so many job losses, we expect more calls, but we just don’t know.”

Walsch’s biggest concern is that when things stop, most won’t go back to work right away, and human-service organizations will be overwhelmed.

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Photo Credit: Thomas Bender

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