City funds bus tickets out of Santa Cruz for homeless people
Up to 375 homeless people could be riding buses home courtesy of the City of Santa Cruz by this time next year. This is the hoped-for result of $25,000 the city council devoted to the Homeward Bound Project when they approved the city’s new budget at their June 26 meeting. The council used the name of an existing program run by the Homeless Services Center (HSC), which has helped about 75 people per year leave the area since 2006, according to HSC Director Monica Martinez. The effort has been funded by private donations.
The city funds will boost HSC’s coffers for bus tickets to $15,000, while also providing $10,000 to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department and $5,000 to Downtown Outreach Workers (DOWs) for the same purpose.
Martinez says these bus tickets home are one of the most sought-after services at the center. “We could probably spend as much as anyone would allocate for this,” she says of the demand. “Our current funding depletes very quickly.”
In doling out these passes, Martinez says the HSC is not simply pushing the issue of homelessness on to other communities. Case managers contact family or friends who are in a position to help the person at their chosen destination. They also explore likely job opportunities that may be waiting when they arrive.
This process is new to the Sheriff’s Department and DOWs, and although the core principles are the same, there are differences to be addressed before the money starts being spent.
One of these distinctions arose when residents outraged by recent violence proposed that homeless inmates at the Santa Cruz County Jail be sent to their former homes upon release. This is impossible in many cases because released inmates are free to go where they please unless the courts bar them from a certain area, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak said in a May Santa Cruz Sentinel article. But with the proper resources to research a person’s destination they could conceivably offer tickets out of town to selected former inmates.
Good Times contacted Sheriff’s Deputy April Skalland for an update on how they are resolving these issues, but received no reply as of this writing.
The DOWs’ role in the program is more similar to the HSC’s, as they often deal with homeless people asking for a way out of Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz City Manager Martin Bernal’s office is currently working out who will oversee the new parts of the program run by the Sheriff’s Department and DOWs to find the most compassionate and effective way to give out the tickets.
City councilmembers Hilary Bryant, Lynn Robinson and Ryan Coonerty are also offering ways to make the program work in the Sheriff’s Department, according to Assistant City Manager Scott Collins.
The $10,000 addition by the city to the HSC’s private funds will result in some oversight of the HSC program, according to Mayor Don Lane, but he expects that to be minimal.
“There is no agreement with the Sheriff’s [Department] or Downtown Outreach [Workers] yet on how it will work,” he says. “It’s easier with the HSC because they have an existing program, so the city manager will just make sure their system is working.”
New York City has a similar program, on which they spend $500,000 each year, according to a New York Times article from July 28, 2009. Social workers there follow up with ticket recipients up to three weeks after a person’s departure and even cover some living expenses while a person gets their life rolling again.
Robert Norse of Homeless United for Friendship and Freedom (HUFF) says that the program isn’t a solution.
“[Homeward Bound] is less about providing services to people and more about getting people out of Santa Cruz that the merchants don’t want here,” says Norse.
Martinez estimates that less than 10 percent of people who receive bus tickets return to Santa Cruz. However, she adds that the only way they would know is if the person returned to their facilities again.
She offers advice that could help the program in all three involved agencies.
“The most important part is understanding their needs and identifying the opportunities at their destination,” she says. “We don’t in any way want to be shipping homelessness around.”