Covering Louisiana

Jul 13, 2014 1:32 PM by DANIEL BETHENCOURT

Busted flat in Baton Rouge? Here's a ticket home

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - One year after Baton Rouge began funding a modest program to bus homeless people back to their families - most to cities in other states - funding has been doubled to $10,000 and homeless advocates are calling the program a success.

"I really believe it's fantastic," Michael Acaldo, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said of the program.

Baton Rouge had about 1,000 homeless residents in the 2010 census, and a sizable portion of them are from out of town if the numbers at St. Vincent de Paul are any indication.

Acaldo estimated that about 20 percent of the homeless staying at St. Vincent de Paul have found themselves stuck in Louisiana's capital city for a wide variety of reasons.

"Getting these people back home is an excellent use of resources," he said.

The program's new funding could help people like Russell Eslinger, 30. Through a combination of bad breaks, he recently found himself homeless on the streets of Baton Rouge with his dog named "D.O.G," trying to figure out a way to get back to Spokane, Washington.

"I think what they're doing is awesome," Eslinger said. "It's a gift, and it's necessary."

What is now dubbed the Way Home Program raised some eyebrows when the city first got involved in helping to fund it - mostly because of the "Clean Sweep" name initially given to the program. It conjured an image of the capital city intent on ridding itself of the homeless by sweeping them from its streets.

The program had its origins as a volunteer effort in 2011 run out of the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless. More than 100 of the city's homeless have reconnected with family members or spouses to locations as far as Baltimore and Los Angeles since the program's launch - 36 with the city's money and the rest from private donations.

The first person to get a ticket out was a woman in her 30s with a history of sexual abuse and mental health problems. She lost her state medical coverage from Texas while in Baton Rouge and spent time in two of the city's hospitals. Volunteers paid for her ticket to stay with supportive family members back in Texas.

"When we can we get them a ticket, they get that roof over their head," said Suzanne Cox, a program volunteer and the director of housing information at the Capital Area Alliance for the Homeless.

The bus tickets, which average $100, with Greyhound chipping in another $30 in the form of a voucher, can be a lifesaver for a homeless person.

"It's not a whole lot of money when you think about how it affects one person's life," Cox said.

To get a ticket, a program volunteer must talk by phone with a relative, spouse or someone who is ready to take that person in. Checks are also made to ensure that applicants aren't on probation here and don't have any pending criminal matters in Baton Rouge.

Another volunteer sees the applicant onto the bus. Cox said that after they send them off, they don't check in again and rarely hear anything back from them.

But, Cox said, "We don't send someone homeless to be homeless in another city."

Eslinger is the kind of homeless person the program targets. He said he has no close family but has a mentor back in Spokane and believes he could go back to work as a mechanic if he could find some way to get there.

He said he has been homeless since December, when a tax assessing job in a small town in south Texas fell through as he was on his way there. He found himself on the streets in Houston with D.O.G. and has been trying to find a way home ever since.

Eslinger said he wound up in Baton Rouge more or less by accident on Tuesday after a truck driver offered him a ride while heading east across the country but could only take him along with him for a night.

Eslinger spent his first couple of nights in Louisiana's capital city sleeping under the "paperclip" dock by the USS Kidd with D.O.G. as a pillow, until a policeman told him he had to move.

He said that if he couldn't get a ticket through the Way Home Program, he will try asking for rides at nearby truck stops.

The program has made believers of some who were wary when the program was first announced as "Clean Sweep."

Metro City Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who was initially skeptical of the initiative, has since been won over. Wicker said she's satisfied knowing that those with tickets are sent to someone who has actually been verified.

"I think it's a good use of dollars," Wicker said of the program.

However, one national expert on homelessness remains skeptical of the effectiveness of such busing programs.

Robert Marbut, a founder of San Antonio-based Haven for Hope and a consultant across the country for cities dealing with homelessness, said he's seen homeless busing programs across the country and rarely found them to be successful.

Even in the best circumstances, when volunteers perform extended follow-ups with the people who take the homeless in, the chances of getting the homeless back on their feet were not great, he said.

"There's a way to do these that can work well, but there are lot of ways that this becomes a dumping ground and nobody benefits," Marbut said.

Not everyone sent away in Baton Rouge's program has fared well.

A couple of people who have been given bus tickets have found their way back to Baton Rouge after their trips, and Cox said they won't get a ticket again.

One man was sent to Houma, but an unlicensed shelter or group home drove out and brought him back to Baton Rouge, so the shelter could use the man's food stamps as a resource for the rest of the home, Cox said.

A host of programs similar to the Way Home Program operate in other cities around the country. New York has a particularly extensive program, even purchasing plane tickets in some cases to send people back to cities in other countries, like Paris and Johannesburg.

Cox said she has had at least 200 applications from people wanting a bus ticket since the program started. Many don't realize what the program is and think they can take vacations to faraway locales, she said.

However, Cox said, they go through an extensive screening process to prevent people from taking advantage of the program.

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Information from: The Advocate, http://theadvocate.com

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