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Homeless Are A Challenge For Sarasota, Fla.

"I think for a long time we've had a lot of issues. The fact that we have a lot of wealthy people downtown, we have a few condos that cater to that type of people, and they're not quite used to dealing with the lowly and downtrodden," said Steve McAllister, a Sarasota native who says he chooses to be homeless and live a lifestyle based on bartering. "And so when we have homeless people come here because of the weather or the opulence or whatnot, we get a lot of clashes between the two classes."

The ACLU has filed five lawsuits against the city â¿¿ some have been settled and the smoking ban has been struck down by a judge.

Police Chief Bernadette DiPino â¿¿ who took the helm of the department in late December â¿¿ says the agency is conducting an internal investigation of both police issues raised by the ACLU.

"The city of Sarasota is working aggressively to learn as much as it can to learn about homeless issues in this community," DiPino said. "There's been a number of complaints from citizens and business owners about people who are sleeping or on the sidewalks or are begging for money. We try to apply the appropriate response to the complaints we're getting from citizens."

She and other city officials say Sarasota actually offers many more services to the homeless than other communities. Officials point to statistics that show there have been about 25,000 instances of documented police contact with the homeless between 2004 and 2012, with 1,416 people referred to various social service programs by officers.

DiPino said that like other communities, Sarasota must balance its responsibility to help people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues with keeping other residents safe and happy.

Phil Grande is a downtown business owner and one-time resident who spearheaded the effort to remove benches from the parks.

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