St. Pete Provides Homeless Free Bus Ticket Out of Town
By STEPHEN THOMPSON | The Tampa Tribune
Published: January 13, 2011vote
ST. PETERSBURG - Though it still represents a miniscule percentage of the city's homeless population, the number of homeless given a free one-way bus ticket to a family member's home has spiked.
According to city records, six people were given tickets in October, and seven in November. But on Jan. 5, 14 to 15 homeless people met a St. Petersburg police officer at the local Greyhound bus station so they could receive tickets.
The officer, Rich Linkiewicz, who is the police department's designated homeless outreach officer, said there are more homeless people receiving the bus tickets because there is more money for the tickets.
For years, Linkiewicz and his partner, Ryne Laxton, who is with the social services agency, Operation Par, have had access to a discretionary fund for purchases that come up as they deal with the homeless problem.
The money has been used for a variety of things – diapers, to put a young family up in a motel for a night after shelters have closed, medication, and, in one case, stool softener. But the bulk of the money goes toward buying one-way bus tickets for those who qualify, Linkiewicz said.
Five years ago, $500 was put into the fund each month, Linkiewicz said. That increased to $1,000 a month, and then to $2,000 a month. However, Linkiewicz and Laxton were finding they were going through the money in less than a week and a half as the city's homeless population continued to burgeon.
Last year, the city council in St. Petersburg agreed to have $4,000 put into the fund each month. However, the money didn't become accessible until Dec. 20, but, because bus tickets are not given out during the holiday season, Linkiewicz waited until after New Year's to make the tickets available.
"I've been stacking them the last two weeks," Linkiewicz said.
The increase does not represent a sea change in the city's philosophy as it relates to dealing with the homeless, city officials say, and giving homeless people one-way bus tickets is just one of the many things Linkiewicz and Laxton do.
The day after tickets were given out at the bus station, a new $1.8 million shelter with a 500-bed capacity opened up in Clearwater, and Linkiewicz transported more than a dozen homeless people in St. Petersburg to it. By Wednesday, there were 115 residents there, according to the Pinellas Sheriff's office, which is operating it.
The 14 to 15 people who met Linkiewicz at the bus station had been waiting to leave town, he said.
"This is a very minute number in the overall picture," said Rhonda L. Abbott, manager of veteran, social and homeless services for the city of St. Petersburg. The homeless population countywide has been estimated at 6,000.
"Nobody's being forced out of town," Linkiewicz said. "We're not going to bus ticket our way out of this." In general, the homeless have heard about the bus ticket option – or some inaccurate description of it – and inquire about it when they believe they are ready to go to a family member's home, according to Linkiewicz and city officials.
There are certain criteria to receive a free bus ticket, Linkiewicz said.
The reason bus tickets were not given out during the holidays is for fear that, once the homeless people get done celebrating Christmas and New Year's with their families, they will return to St. Petersburg, said Linkiewicz. Tickets are also more expensive during the holidays.
And, a bus ticket is handed out only if there is a family member – as opposed to a girlfriend, or buddy — at the destination who has agreed to take the homeless person in.
"It's so unethical to put them on a bus to nowhere," said Abbott.
Some families, when contacted, have refused to take in their loved one, or they agree to take in their loved one only if the loved one has undergone alcohol or drug treatment, Linkiewicz said.
One of the many reasons people end up homeless is that they have broken relationships with their kin, said Laxton. "Most of our folks have burnt bridges," he said.
But returning a homeless person to their family is considered "one of the most effective" ways of dealing with St. Petersburg's homelessness, said Laxton. "You're sending them back to family where they have the support they need," he said.
"They're often desperate to go back to where their support is," said Abbott.
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