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Santa Rosa pays homeless people to head home

When Marie Stiffend struck out for California in July, the 19-year-old former foster kid wanted to put some distance between herself and the small Oregon town where nothing much ever happened and everybody knew everybody else’s business.

She hit the road with her boyfriend and his friend. After hanging out with a friend in Visalia for a few months, they decided they would head to the home of her boyfriend’s family in Santa Rosa.

“We never made it that far,” Stiffend said as she sat at the Greyhound bus terminal on Santa Rosa Avenue on Saturday afternoon, a taxpayer-funded ticket back home in her hand.

Though they reached Santa Rosa, Stiffend soon found herself living on the street. Her boyfriend had crashed the car, destroying their only means of transportation, and, under circumstances she preferred not to discuss, landed himself in jail. When members of Catholic Charities’ Homeless Outreach Services Team came across Stiffend recently, she had been living on the street for three months and just wanted to go home.

Luckily for her, Santa Rosa recently boosted the team’s funding, allowing it to launch a new program that buys one-way bus and plane tickets for homeless people who want to get back home.

“Sometimes getting people back to their families and their support system is the best way to help them be successful,” said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities, which operates the HOST program under contracts with the city and county.

Since the pilot program began in August, Catholic Charities has spent $1,630 to send six people away from Sonoma County, one by airplane and the rest by Greyhound bus. Stiffend, the most recent to depart, received a $216 bus ticket and $20 in spending money for what turned out to be an exhausting 48-hour trip home to La Pine, Ore., an hour south of Bend.

“I’m excited,” Stiffend said before departing. “It’s the first time in years I’m going to spend Christmas with my mom.”

Supporters of the program say it is more cost-effective and humane to help homeless people return home instead of paying to provide them with local housing, health care and myriad other public services.

“That’s a pretty good return on your investment, especially when you compare it to the cost of housing someone,” Holmes said.

But is Santa Rosa merely exporting its homeless problem to other communities instead of dealing with the issue itself? City Councilwoman Julie Combs thinks not.

“We’re not dumping,” Combs said bluntly. “We’re allowing people to return home. I consider that a significant difference.”

When cities get in the habit of handing out one-way tickets to homeless people, they’re venturing into controversial territory. A Las Vegas mental health hospital was recently accused of sending 24 patients, some disoriented and indigent, to the Bay Area. To settle the case, the state of Nevada recently paid $400,000 to San Francisco, which estimated more than 500 people had been sent to California over a five-year period.

Cities around the nation have long-standing programs to help people get home if they can show a support network there. San Francisco has a program called Homeward Bound, while Hawaii’s is dubbed Return to Home. Catholic Charities has operated a similar program for years in Eureka, which sees a significant seasonal influx of young people looking for work in the marijuana industry who then become stranded.

New York began Project Reconnect in 2007 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, sending about 2,300 people home in 2014. Mayor Bill de Blasio has been criticized for continuing the practice by activists who question whether the program shifts the burden to other communities. The program has come under particular scrutiny because of its willingness to send people overseas, including destinations as far flung as Japan, Morocco, Peru and Russia. Questions also have been raised about why such a high percentage of program participants chose to go to Florida in 2014, 14 percent, when only 4 percent listed previous addresses there.

But the HOST program is being very careful to confirm that participants have a family member and safe environment to return to, Combs said.

“If we have a person who is stranded here homeless, in trouble and all they need is help getting home in order to have a place to stay and to be reunited with their family, I think we should be doing that,” Combs said.

Santa Rosa already spends about $710,000 annually to operate its homeless services center at Samuel Jones Hall. But the shelter has a long waiting list, and the city is under pressure from homeless advocates to do more. Earlier this year, the City Council authorized spending an additional $500,000 to expand the work of the county’s HOST program in the city.

The expansion included hiring new outreach workers, establishing a 24/7 homeless hotline, buying and paying to operate a shower trailer/restroom and spending money to get the most vulnerable people off the street and housed in hotels, motels or campgrounds while they await more permanent housing.

The relocation piece is a very small component of the overall program, but HOST officials hope it will grow once word gets out that the service is available.

Just how many homeless people might be able to benefit from this service is unclear. Of the 3,107 homeless people identified in the county’s 2015 census, 86 percent were residents of Sonoma County before they became homeless. Some (12 percent) had been residents for less than a year, but most (58 percent) lived here for more than 10 years before becoming homeless.

By that count, 434 people identified as homeless were not county residents. Since 60 percent of homeless residents live in and around Santa Rosa, there’s significant room for the program to grow.

Some of the participants appear to have been attracted to Santa Rosa specifically because of the program.

When Alex Rettig, 23, and Sabree Koonce, 22, turned up at a homeless shelter in Guerneville this past fall, they were in rough shape.

The wanderlust that stirred them in the spring to strike out west had been replaced by a weariness bordering on desperation. Their van had broken down in Wyoming, forcing the pair to hitchhike. After reaching the West Coast, they found odd jobs and free rides hard to come by, in part because so many other people appeared to have the same idea. Then, when a guy who gave them a ride was pulled over for speeding, Koonce said she got a $200 ticket for not wearing her seatbelt.

After six months on the road, they were tired, broke and needed to either find jobs or get home to Kansas. .

“It all just kind of fell apart,” she said.

When they mentioned their desire to go home, someone who worked at the Guerneville shelter pointed the pair to Santa Rosa. They figured they would head to the city to look for work, and if that didn’t pan out, they might be able to take advantage of the relocation program.

“We were very excited when we heard that, but we were also very cautious,” said Koonce. “We didn’t want to hold out too much hope that it would happen.”

But after sleeping in a city park for a while, they met a HOST worker who confirmed the program and, after getting the necessary approvals, finally got their bus tickets back to Kansas City. They were given $20 each and some food from a shelter for teens in the city, and were sent on their way. The total cost of their relocation was $493.

They’re now staying with Koonce’s mother in Leavenworth, Kan., She has been able to pick up some work, but Rettig has had a tougher time, she said. Even so, they’re happy to be home safe for the holidays.

“We were very grateful that we got out of there before the rainy season hit too hard,” she said.

Others who have been relocated include an older couple to Nevada and a 22-year-old who had some addiction issues to Kentucky.

In addition to confirming the person has a safe place to return to, HOST workers follow up to make sure they reach their destination and to see how things are going later, Holmes said.

Concern that people will be attracted to Santa Rosa if the city increases its homeless services benefits - including relocation expenses - is a persistent one, but it’s difficult to screen for, Holmes said. Many transients move among the different cities in the county, often coming to Santa Rosa to receive social services, she said. The program tries to make sure, however, that people from outside Sonoma County aren’t coming in to utilize the relocation services, Holmes said.

It’s no coincidence that several of the people selected for relocation are young adults. The HOST program partners with two other organizations that focus on helping young people, Social Advocates for Youth and Buckelew Programs.

Together, they have a strong focus on helping young adults before they fall into dangerous behaviors, become crime victims or begin to accepting that homelessness is a way of life.

“You want to catch them while they’re young and say, ‘This isn’t normal,’?” Holmes said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. ?On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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