ENGLEWOOD — When Tina Steele approached former chairman Stewart Sterns about creating a Homeless Strike Team for Sarasota Community Organizations Active in Disaster, she didn’t realize how much on board he was, following a visit to a disaster area in Punta Gorda after Hurricane Charley in 2004.
COAD was started in the aftermath of Charley as a committee under the Community Alliance of Sarasota County. It works with various organizations and networks to provide appropriate services.
COAD has six strike teams; each addresses a serviceable need within a community throughout a disaster — developmental disabilities, elder care, mental health and substance abuse, volunteers and donations, homeless, and youth and families.
“These strike teams, they focus on the specific needs of that population they serve,” said Kristin Szafraniec, a human services professional with Sarasota County.
The Homeless Strike Team is 1 year old and works with various organizations and departments like the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, Sarasota County Area Transit, the American Red Cross and Englewood Helping Hand.
“We are, as far as we know, the only one in existence,” team leader Steele said. “So we’re pretty much making this up as we’re going along.”
According to the Sarasota County government website, the mission statement of the homeless strike team is “to identify and facilitate the acquisition of the tools necessary to provide for the effective and timely communication of disaster-related information and disaster planning, preparation, response and recovery for the homeless of Sarasota County.”
It’s a tall task, Steele said, as one of the major initiatives is to provide free cellphones, provided by Safelink, to the homeless to maintain contact in case of emergencies.
“Our biggest concern is that prior to any kind of disaster down the pike, we need to get ahold of the unsheltered homeless who don’t come in,” Steele said. “They prefer to live in camps, under bushes and behind stores. They’re the people we really need to reach because very oftentimes, they don’t get to hear something that’s going south and we need to be able to get in contact with them. We’re working with emergency management in the hopes that they can send a text blast to these phones. So even if one person out of five has a phone, at least word can be gotten out to the community.”
COAD created an emergency ID card system so everybody, not just the homeless, will have access to the emergency disaster office, said Rik Jimison, a human services professional with Sarasota County.
While there is potential for crossover when people fall into more than one category, the strike teams do collaborate, defer when necessary and work with the same agencies to help those in need.
There may be room for expansion for more strike teams in the future. “There’s always the possibility that somebody will recognize a community need in the population that can generate interest and there could be another strike team,” Jimison said. To contact the Sarasota County Homeless Strike Team, call 941-861-2564.