By Katia Protsenko

The homeless population of Santa Cruz now has the opportunity to receive free one-way bus tickets out of town. The Homeless Service Center on Coral Street recently implemented a new program through which the destitute can get a free bus ticket to anywhere in the country, hopefully enabling them to land on their feet elsewhere.

However, the program is not as simple as it seems. People wanting to use the service must provide contact information so that the center can contact the homeless’s families to verify that housing and care will be provided.

"We can’t use it for people that just want to relocate," said Shannon Watson, an operations manager at the Homeless Services Center. The center assists over 1,000 people on a regular basis.

According to Franklin Williams, who sits on the Board of Directors for the Homeless Center, homeless people must first fill out an application before being given their bus ticket.

"[The ticket] is non-refundable. It’s one-way; strictly from point A to point B," Williams said. "We spent over four months figuring out how to do this at the Board level. This is another tool where we’re trying to provide services."

Last year, 46 homeless people in Santa Cruz County died, according to the center’s numbers. Williams told City on a Hill Press that reducing that number is one of the Board of Directors’ priorities for this year, and that he believes that some of last year’s deaths could have been prevented had victims been able to reunite with loved ones elsewhere.

"We had somebody make a very generous donation for that purpose, and we don’t want to lose another 46 people this year," Williams said. "It’s important for us that we do everything we can to reunite homeless with their families."

Kevin Maddrey recently moved to Santa Cruz from Washington, DC, and has noticed a difference in the homeless here.

"Their attitudes are more abrasive," Maddrey said of the local homeless population. "Santa Cruz seems to be a homeless person’s haven, with all the programs offered here. The [bus ticket] program is good if the person is willing, but most of the homeless here seem content with the way things are."

Watson, who works closely with the homeless population that frequents the Coral Street Center, sees it differently.
"There are people that come in that are stranded here, that have legitimate reasons to go back home, and that have a home to go to," Watson said.

Although the bus ticket program has not yet been perfected, the staff at the Homeless Services Center is working to further improve programs aimed at getting homeless off the streets. "This is a pilot program," Williams said. "We know that we have a great need, but we also know that we have to start small and it’s very important that we do this because all 46 people [that died last year] had families."

"Nobody should have to be notified that their relative was found in the woods, covered in mud," he added. "In 2007, we will make a much more concerted effort to save more people, and this is one of those programs."