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Sending the Homeless Home

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

December 16 -- Santa Monica officials are looking into sending the homeless back where they came from -- but only with the help of their family and friends.

Over the coming year, City officials will look into establishing a family reunification program, which for the price of a bus ticket, will offer a chance for homeless individuals to reunite with their families or other care-takers.

Based on the “Homeward Bound” program begun last year in San Francisco, proponents say it is a low-cost way to ease the burden on local services including hospitals, paramedics and police – which spend tens of thousands of dollars on each year on the homeless -- while giving the downtrodden a chance to get back on their feet.

As of December, 814 homeless individuals have returned to their hometowns from San Francisco, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report. Only 25 have returned, program managers said, at a cost of nearly $80,000 in bus tickets.

Now City officials want to bring those savings to Santa Monica.

“The key really is to make sure that someone on the other end is able to provide housing and support to homeless individuals who is returning there,” said Mona Miyasato, acting human services manager in charge of homeless issues for the City.

On Tuesday, Miyasato introduced a wide array of new strategies and programs – including the reunification project – that city officials will look to put into action in the coming year.

City Council members, who approved the program Tuesday, emphasized that they are not just shipping homeless individuals out of Santa Monica.

“This is not throwing someone on a moving vehicle,” said Mayor Bob Holbrook.

The Homeward Bound program was streamlined under San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome. San Francisco had been providing bus tickets for decades, but would make sure that homeless persons qualified for welfare before putting them on a bus. The wait would postpone their departure for weeks. Now they can leave the same day they apply.

To participate in the San Francisco program, a homeless person must be willing and able to go, and friends and family must assure San Francisco counselors that they will accept and support that person back home.

Although the program is run by the human services department, the main point of contact are plain clothes police officers who pass out the tickets, something that officials in San Francisco said must be done with sensitivity so it doesn't look like they're forcing the option on the homeless.

As with other proposals introduced during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, City officials said the program offers a historic opportunity to turn the tide on homelessness.

Most importantly, they said, it’s a chance to reunite fathers, sons, daughters and others with their long lost relatives who may be out searching for them right now – with the added bonus of cost savings built in for Santa Monica.

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