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S. Florida homeless strategy: bus tix

The South Florida strategy to end homelessness is nothing if not multipronged -- combining essential food and shelter services with counseling, employment assistance ... and one-way bus tickets.

Hundreds of Greyhound bus tickets, in fact, are given out every year.

The city of Fort Lauderdale this week joined the ranks of local government agencies acting as ticket brokers -- providing homeless individuals and families with free one-way bus rides out of town. Fort Lauderdale plans to spend about $25,000 a year on the effort, while Miami-Dade and Broward counties each spend at least twice that much annually.

Homeless advocates say the free bus trips are worthwhile if those traveling are being welcomed and sheltered by friends or family at their arrival city. Large metropolitan areas across the country, including New York and San Francisco, have their own free-trip programs.

Before it pays for the bus ticket, Broward County has a policy of requiring the homeless traveler to show identification, and their friend or loved one must confirm by phone that they are offering up their home.

“I can’t think of a time when somebody’s given somebody’s name and they’ve said ‘No, they can’t come here,’” said Sarah Curtis, a section manager in Broward’s Human Services department. “We’ve had grandmothers cry and say, ‘Bring my babies home.’”

An emotional support network can boost the chances of a person breaking the cycle of homelessness and getting permanently back on their feet.

While not all homeless people are struggling with substance abuse issues, some certainly are. Moving to a different environment can be key for those trying to quit drugs or alcohol, said Brian Marks, a caseworker with the Fort Lauderdale-based Coalition to End Homelessness.

“A lot of people need that,” Marks said, while adding, “Who doesn’t want to be with their family for the holidays?”

Miami-Dade County’s free-trip program, like others both locally and around the country, is referred to as a “family reunification” service. Miami-Dade’s relocation methods, while primarily Greyhound-based, also include occasional air travel. The county has paid for airfare in instances where it is cheaper than bus fare, the traveler has a disability making a multi-day bus ride impractical, or the traveler’s home is in another country. “

Broward’s free destinations are limited to places buses can go, said Curtis.

Both Miami-Dade and Broward have a one-time-only policy when it comes to complimentary travel. If a homeless man or woman returns to Miami-Dade afterward, he or she would be denied homeless-assistance services for a lengthy period of time, Miami-Dade Homeless Trust Chairman Ron Book said.

Miami-Dade has relocated more than 300 homeless men, women, and children in 2011, Book said. Broward estimated that, between October 2010 and November 2011, it provided travel to nearly 300 households, some of them families with children. At times, because of budget constraints, Broward has had a waiting list for its Greyhound tickets, and unmet demand is one of the reasons Fort Lauderdale says it created its own program.

The hundreds served by free bus tickets pale in comparison to the thousands served by shelter beds and other more-traditional homeless aid -- highlighting the fact that most of South Florida’s homeless are locals, not visiting out-of-towners.