|Maura Wood, also known as "Cookie"|
Bridget Mary's Response: I have purchased breakfast at McDonalds on numerous occasions, including this week, for Maura Wood, who goes by "Cookie." When I asked her about going to the Salvation Army, her response has been that they do not have facilities to provide for care givers of people with special needs like her. As a disabled person who has seizures, she needs to have a caregiver. Sarasota Memorial Hospital should not have discharged Maura Wood to the streets. She should be in housing for people with special needs. This is a tragic failure on behalf of the hospital and city social services, and it is an indictment on our entire Sarasota Community for allowing this kind of cruel treatment of a vulnerable woman, like Maura Wood, in our city. We can and should do better. Bridget Mary Meehan
SARASOTA — "When Sarasota police found a 46-year-old disabled homeless woman sleeping in a wheelchair in a city park Friday night, they arrested her for stealing the chair.
Maura Wood, 46, a stroke victim who’s unable to walk, was charged with felony theft after Sarasota Police officer Kimberle Vespia found her asleep in a wheelchair in Payne Park, wrapped in a white hospital blanket.
On back of the wheelchair was stenciled “SMH.”
Wood reportedly told the officer that she had just got out of Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and that she was not able to walk the 1.3 miles to the park, so she took the chair.
Homeless man arrested for charging phone in parkNovember 12, 201
Police contacted an SMH security officer who came to the scene. He told the officer that the hospital does not loan wheelchairs, and then provided the officer with a written statement that said the hospital wanted to press charges against Wood for grand theft — a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.
Woods was arrested and taken to the Sarasota County Jail.
Rather than requiring her to post a $1,500 bond, Judge Thomas Krug released Wood the next day on her own recognizance.
After the Herald-Tribune started asking questions about the arrest, hospital spokeswoman Kim Savage said that the felony charges against Wood were dropped.
“After becoming fully apprised of the situation, we have decided not to move forward with legal action and communicated that with the authorities,” Savage said Tuesday. “We do not loan out our wheelchairs, so the public safety officer did what he was hired to do — safeguard the people and property of Sarasota Memorial. His decision to press charges was appropriate.”
According to the Sarasota Clerk of Court’s office, the charges remain active.
“Without knowing all the facts, it is upsetting to me that after law enforcement contacted Sarasota Memorial Hospital, they wanted to pursue charges against Ms. Wood.” 12th Circuit Public Defender Larry Eger said. “Based on her condition, it is also unfortunate that law enforcement would arrest her instead of offering assistance.”
Wood has been arrested 28 times in Florida on charges ranging from sleeping out of doors, panhandling, passing worthless checks and vehicle theft.
“There does seem to be a complete breakdown on services for those who are in a greatest need,” Eger said. “This is someone who seems to fall through the ever-increasing cracks in the system.”
Citing federal privacy laws, Savage said the hospital could not confirm that Wood was ever a patient. Disabled hospital patients would not be discharged if they were not able to walk or arrange for a car or taxi to leave campus, she said.
Savage also said the hospital “provides case managers and social workers that work with patients to address whatever needs they have at home or whenever they are living, so that they have a safe discharge.”
“We can arrange certain things to help them get the resources they need, whether that is a wheelchair or a walker,” she said.
Since 2014, one member of the Sarasota Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) has had 53 contacts with Wood, during which services such as food, shelter and security were offered, according to Sarasota Police Department spokeswoman Genevieve Judge.
In the days leading up to her arrest, HOT Team members offered to take Wood to the Salvation Army.
The HOT program is voluntary and Wood refused those services.
She was last contacted by HOT team member Officer David Dubendorf on May 23, Judge said.
On the night of Wood’s arrest, she was not offered HOT Team assistance because she was charged with a felony."