Homeless people in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., now have an alternative to shelters: A one-way bus ticket out of the city, thanks to a $25,000 program approved by city commissioners on Tuesday.
To qualify, participants must prove they have family in their destination city who is willing to let them move in. Advocates of the Homeless Reunification Program - which is financed not by taxpayers but by the Florida Law Enforcement Trust Fund, which is composed of money confiscated from criminals - told Florida's Sun-Sentinel this gives people living on the streets a second chance they wouldn't be getting otherwise.
"We're not pushing them out," Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said. "If somebody has a network of support, a group of family and friends that will provide for them back home, that's probably a good place for them to be."
Some of those in shelters moved to Fort Lauderdale thinking they would find a job and then ran out of money before getting hired, Marilyn Munoz, executive director of nearby Palm Beach County’s Homeless Coalition, told msnbc.com. This program specifically targets people like them, she said.
“This is definitely not a way to get people who are homeless out of Palm Beach County; this is just a way to get people back home,” she said. “If they have relatives, this helps them out. That all it is: It’s help. It’s very expensive to purchase a bus ticket.”
For Fort Lauderdale, though, the expense a bus ticket vs. putting someone up in a shelter - a bus ticket to California could cost as little as $245 from Florida, according to The Sun-Sentinel - is much more cost-effective. The city, in Broward County, is following in Palm Beach County's footsteps.
Claudia Tuck, Palm Beach County division director for human and veteran services, told msnbc.com the Homeless Reunification Program is just one component of the county's 10-year plan to end homelessness.
"It's very specific to helping somebody who really doesn't want to be here," she said. "They've come here, things didn't work out, and they have a support system somewhere else but don't have means to get there and that person doesn't have the means to get them there either."
The agency will not approve a bus ticket for a homeless person until a relative in the destination city is reached, Tuck said.
"This isn’t a practice of putting someone on a bus at all," she said.
It’s also up to the people seeking homes, said Dorla Leslie, CEO of Palm Beach County’s Center for Family Services.
“Our first thing is to try to find them shelter locally if that is at all possible, and if that is what they want, when they come in to see us,” Leslie told msnbc.com. “We’re not going to say to them, ‘Oh, we’re going to send you on a bus.’”
If the individual or family wants to go live with a relative elsewhere, Leslie said, the program will pay for a bus ticket anywhere in the U.S. that Greyhound goes, as long as the verification process is completed. Relatives must be willing and able to take in the participants.
“We meet [participants] at the bus station and help them, and then we do a follow-up to make sure that they have arrived safely wherever they’re going,” she said.
'You can't summer in the Hamptons'
Vice Mayor Bobby DuBose was the only Fort Lauderdale commissioner who voted against the program, reported The Sun-Sentinel, expressing concerns the program could be abused and used as a cheap means for vacation.
A police spokesman denied that possibility.
"We're trying to get people off the streets and get them into a healthy, positive, environment," said spokesman Travis Mandell, reported The Sun-Sentinel. "This is not to be used as a vacation for a homeless person. You can't summer in the Hamptons and winter in Fort Lauderdale."
Others, including the executive director of the National Homeless Coalition, felt the move was political rather than altruistic.
"I think cities that embark on that as a course of action, like Fort Lauderdale, like New York City, like San Francisco, the nature of that is quite transparent, to move their problem onto somebody else's doorstep," Neil Donovan told The Sun-Sentinel. "I'm way more than suspicious. I don't believe that the stated purpose of the program is in fact the goal of the city."
A participant can only qualify once for a bus ticket. While Fort Lauderdale's mayor conceded it might not guarantee a person won't become homeless again, he said it was worth a try, citing similar programs that have operated for years in Florida's Palm Beach County and West Palm Beach. Manhattan also started a relocation program in 2007.
The police department's homeless outreach team told The Sun-Sentinel it placed more than 7,000 people in shelters and housing programs during the first eight months of 2011, but said 190 families were still homeless and waiting for opening as of Sept. 2.
"I can't ensure they're going to get taken care of wherever they're going," Seiler said. "If somebody expresses a desire not to be homeless in Fort Lauderdale, that's good news."
As of its last count, Palm Beach County had 2,148 homeless people, Tuck told msnbc.com. In addition to relocation services, she said the county is providing more affordable housing options and improve its interim housing services for homeless individuals. The 10-year plan is posted on Palm Beach County Homeless Advisory Board's website, TheHomeslessPlan.org.
Leslie, with the county’s Center for Family Services, said the program gives homeless people more than bus tickets.
“Just look at the isolation they must be feeling. How much better would they be feeling if they had support mentally, emotionally, and financially from other members of their family?”
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