Baton Rouge’s latest approach to addressing its homeless population is to offer them a bus ticket out of Louisiana’s capital city.
The Metro Council approved Mayor-President Kip Holden’s mid-year budget allocation Wednesday, which among many other funds, included $5,000 for one-way bus tickets for homeless people.
Initially, the homeless relocation program was referred to in budget documents as “Clean Sweep,” but it was subsequently renamed “HOPE,” which stands for Homeless Outreach Prevention Efforts.
“We want to help people who can be helped,” said William Daniel, chief administrative officer to Holden. “Maybe there’s someone who came here looking for a job, and now their family is in another place and they want to get back to them but have no way to get back.”
Daniel said it’s a trial program that could be expanded if it proves successful.
Holden is in Taiwan this week for an economic development trip, and was unavailable for comment.
Daniel estimated the average bus ticket could run about $150, so this year’s allocation to the program would only reach about 33 people.
Joel Smith, 25, said Wednesday he has recently found himself homeless and in need of a ride to Shreveport where he can stay with his older brother.
He said if he could get a bus ride to Shreveport, which is about a four-hour drive, he could get his life in order.
“I’d go home, take a shower and get a job,” Smith said. “My dad has a business in Shreveport laying brick. I got it all lined up.”
Smith, who recently released from prison after serving time for burglary, said he’s never been homeless before.
“I ain’t never been in this position before,” Smith said. “I’d rather be in the penitentiary than on the street.”
Tommy Bledsole, 43, said he’s been homeless on and off for 10 years and spends many of his nights sleeping on the streets.
He said he came to Baton Rouge 12 years ago for work, but wants to return to North Carolina, where his parents live. “My parents would take me in,” Bledsole said. “I’d be home.”
To qualify for the program, a person must have family or friends at the destination who can be verified as willing and able to provide a place to stay.
The individual also must be medically able to travel unassisted, and remain sober while traveling.
The program is being overseen by the Baton Rouge Police Deaprtment, which will make the determination as to what individuals will receive assistance by working with homeless support organizations and then verifying that the person meets the criteria.
Representatives from the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless said they had no knowledge that Baton Rouge officials had plans for the program.
Councilman John Delgado, who proposed the program to the Mayor’s Office, said downtown Baton Rouge is being overrun with homeless people who are bad for business and tourism.
“They have no home, no job, no prospects, and if they want to go, quite honestly, I’m happy to send them,” Delgado said.
“At the end of the day we did not spend millions of tax payer dollars on refurbishing downtown to make it as nice as it is just to have it flooded with homeless people.”
Councilwoman Tara Wicker said reconnecting homeless people with their families is just one component of an overall strategy to reduce chronic homelessness in the city. She said the program must be carried out with sensitivity and ultimately benefit the individual.
“Just loading up all the homeless and shipping them from one town to the other is a bad idea,” Wicker said.
“We’ve literally had some of our homeless say they’ve been shipped here from other cities. I think that’s an inhumane thing to do.”
Michael Acaldo, executive director of St. Vincent De Paul, said sending homeless people out of town can be successful as long as each circumstance is well vetted.
He said his organization, in extreme cases, will send people out of town if they have an established family or friends who will receive them. However, he said, there are many times when those people end up back in Baton Rouge.
Baton Rouge’s plan to send homeless people out of the city is nothing new. New York City is one of the most notable examples, spending thousands of dollars on plane tickets to send the homeless back to their families.
According to reports, 550 families were relocated to 24 states and five continents in the program’s first year at a cost of about $500,000 to the city.
Randy Nichols, executive director of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless, said his organization also has offered bus tickets to the homeless when funds are available.
“But we have to make sure we aren’t sending them away to be homeless somewhere else,” Nichols said. “That isn’t good for them and that doesn’t make Baton Rouge look good.”
The Alliance’s most recent homeless count tallied about 800 people living on the streets or in temporary housing. Baton Rouge’s homeless population fluctuates between 700 and 1,100 people per year, however, officials say that an exact count is impossible.
Nichols added he “might prefer another title other than ‘Clean Sweep.’”
Acaldo said he didn’t think the Mayor’s Office meant any harm by initially calling it “Clean Sweep,” adding it probably referred to the unsanitary conditions many homeless people live in, but not necessarily referring to homeless people as something to be cleaned or swept from the city.
Some of the homeless men at the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless called the title offensive.
Steven Johnson, 66, said he’s been homeless for three weeks and is trying to get to Canada to live with his fiancée. But he said he would have a problem taking part of a program named “Clean Sweep.”
“I’ve been called a lot of different things before, but I’m sorry, that just rubs my fur the wrong way,” Johnson said.
Smith had a little different perspective.
“Call it what you want,” Smith said. “Just get me home.”
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