Late last week, the city’s Metro Council approved a measure to fund one-way bus tickets for homeless people. Officials originally named it the “Clean Sweep” program; after they realized that comparing homeless people to trash on the street wasn’t a great public relations move, they changed the name to “HOPE,” or Homeless Outreach Prevent Efforts. Just $5,000 was appropriated in the trial program, enough for around 30 one-way bus tickets, but funding could be expanded later if officials consider the move a success.
HOPE is a seemingly benevolent program where homeless people who have family or a job lined up somewhere outside Baton Rouge can use the program to get a free bus ticket to their destination. In theory, the job or family member is supposed to be verified by the city before putting a homeless person on a bus.
The issue is that these programs frequently fall short of their ideal and can even result in homeless people being shipped out of town against their will. A number of other cities around the country already have programs to give their homeless residents one-way tickets, including New York City, San Francisco, and Fort Lauderdale, and they have proven highly problematic.
It can be good “if it’s done for the right reasons and it’s voluntary and people are not being given a choice, ‘go to jail or we can give you a bus ticket,’” Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless, told ThinkProgress. In addition, though one-way bus ticket programs are typically sold as a way to reunite homeless persons with their families, such programs have historically served a far more nefarious goal: ridding downtown of homeless people.
Problems arise, however, when a city’s police department, instead of a homeless agency, is in charge of administering these programs. There is often little oversight or follow-up to ensure that a homeless person isn’t just being shuttled out of the city and then forgotten. “Police departments should be the last people handling this,” Stoops said.
However, as The Advocate, a local newspaper, notes, “the program is being overseen by the Baton Rouge Police Deaprtment.” Though it claims it will work in conjunction with homeless organizations, local advocacy groups said they had no knowledge of the matter.
As a result, advocates would be excused for worrying that HOPE is a thinly-veiled guise for getting rid of Baton Rouge’s homeless population, especially considering comments made by the sponsoring councilmember. Councilman John Delgado, the driving force behind HOPE, said homeless people are a blight on downtown Baton Rouge. “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,” said Delgado, hinting that family reunification may not be his primary goal.
Indeed, one can imagine Delgado’s next priority being a statue to be placed on the road into Baton Rouge that reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, so that I may give them one-way bus tickets out of town and they can be someone else’s problem.”