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Program Gives Homeless Ticket Home

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

January 22 -- John survived 18 years on Santa Monica's streets until a bus ticket paid for by the City took the 49-year-old home to an aunt in Knoxville, Tennessee.

While John's name is fictional, his story is real. He is one of ten of Santa Monica's estimated 2,800 homeless who have left the City in the last five months under a new City-funded program known as "Project Homecoming."

Modeled after a similar program in San Francisco, "Homecoming" pays for bus fare for homeless persons who want it. The catch, though, is that there must be someone at the other end to help get them on their feet.

"The basic idea was this was a cheap way to reunite people with family and friends," said John Maceri, executive director of OPCC, the Santa Monica-based homeless non-profit, which has helped place all of the participants so far.

"They must be homeless adults in Santa Monica, able to travel outside the area – meaning they can't have outstanding warrants – and they have to be willing to travel by bus," Maceri said.

And while Maceri said no critics have spoken out yet, he is quick to mention that the program is not carting the problem to other communities, a practice that has drawn the media spotlight to some cities.

"They have to have a place to go to," he said. "What the idea is not is to make someone homeless somewhere else."

Maceri said friends or family members must first convince an OPCC case manager that they will either bring the homeless person into their homes or provide housing for them.

The "host" is then encouraged to help the person seek counseling for any alcohol or drug addictions or mental illness, problems battled by nearly two-thirds of the city’s homeless, according to a recent report. (see story)

"This is a huge step for the family and the individual in that it is their first step in accepting help," he said.

Within weeks of contacting a host, passengers such as John are taken to the bus station, given a food voucher and sent on their way, Maceri said.

A call is then made to make sure the homeless person was picked up and a final follow-up is conducted two-weeks later to check the progress, he said.

To date, eight of the ten people who have received the second call remain housed in cities across the United States, according to a spreadsheet maintained by the City. The other two were sent on January 11 and had not received a second call when the report was compiled.

OPCC does not have the resources to conduct more follow-up calls, Maceri said.

"It would be good, but… our staff are already overwhelmed," he said. "It may be something we will look into in the future."

So far, though, the results seem encouraging, Maceri said.

"We received one note from a man's mother thanking us and saying how happy she was to see him again," he said. "For many of the family members or friends, they may not have seen the person for years and are relieved to know they are okay.

“There's a lot of anxiety, we see a lot of anxiety," Maceri said.

If the program works, as proponents suggest, human lives may not be all that it saves.

Each year, the City's police and fire department and local hospitals, such as St. John's, spend tens of thousands of dollars, if not more, attending to the homeless. (see story)

"It is a very difficult and expensive problem," said human services administrator, Julie Rusk, who handles homeless issues for the City. "This may be just another tool for the City, but one advantage is its cost."

At an average of $192 per person, it has cost the City $1,920 so far to run the program.

"It costs much more than that to put someone in jail, and a lot more than that for a hospital visit," said Maceri.

With only a handful of participants to date, officials said it may be too early to tell who uses the program and where they end up.

So far, four of the formerly homeless had been on Santa Monica streets for four years or more, with the longest being on the streets 18 years, and the shortest, only a few months, according to the records..

Still, it is impossible to tell if the person was homeless before they came to Santa Monica, officials said.

To date, all have left not only Santa Monica, but the state. Washington, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Missouri and Utah are all states to which people were bussed.

Participants of "Project Homecoming" range in age from 20 to 52, most are single, and the majority are met by a family member at the bus station to start their new lives.

"For some, this is the first time they've heard if they are alive or dead," said Maceri, who noted that OPCC has reunified families in the past, but never on the City's dime.

Doing so may increase the agency’s ability to send even more people out of Santa Monica, and home to family and friends who can care for them, he said.

"There's no guarantee of anything, it's just one more tool," he said. "But we're in the business of helping people."

 

 

 

“What the idea is not is to make someone homeless somewhere else." John Maceri

 

“This may be just another tool for the City, but one advantage is its cost." Julie Rusk

 

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