Monday, July 28, 2003 | 11:07 a.m.
A new program that gives a free one-way bus ride home to people who have bottomed out on the streets of Las Vegas has gone through nearly half of its startup money in less than three weeks, an official said.
"We've had people standing in our waiting room," said Sandra Lewis, executive director of Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit that started the program known as PATH, or Police Assisting Travelers Home, on July 10 with Metro Police.
"It's kind of overwhelming."
Almost half of the $10,000 given by a company called Light America for the program has been used to send 40 people to 17 states, from California to Florida. Lewis said the company will continue to give an undisclosed additional amount to the program on a monthly basis.
Many of those who have been helped by the program have wound up on the streets after being drawn to Las Vegas in search of work and coming up empty, said Metro Sgt. Eric Fricker, who works with the program.
The Rev. Lloyd Rupp, who works with the homeless as chairman of the board of trustees for Friends of the Desert, a Henderson nonprofit, agreed.
"A lot of people come here with a job in mind ... and then it doesn't work out," he said. "By that point, they don't have any money and they need a hand."
The most expensive trip home yet involved a bus to Bellingham, Wash., followed by a ferry to Ketchikan, Alaska. The bus ride cost $145 and the ferry ride cost $193, Lewis said. The average ride home has cost about $110.
Meanwhile, 15 others have been approved for the PATH program, meaning they have no arrest warrants and they have someone waiting for them on the other end. Applicants also must agree to follow-up calls by Metro to see how they've fared. Twenty applications are pending.
The program has been hailed as innovative by those who say the Las Vegas Valley doesn't have enough services to help its homeless.
Recently elected Las Vegas City Councilwoman Janet Moncrief is among its supporters.
"A lot of people who are homeless ... want to go home," she said.
Moncrief said she wants to "get the word out more" to companies that may offer additional funds to the program and would "explore ideas" for the council to fund the program.
Some people have misunderstood the program's intent, however, Lewis said.
"They say they came here for a big party and now they party's over so can we send them home," Lewis said.
Still others have said the program appears to be offering what is popularly known as "Greyhound bus therapy," according to Linda Lera-Randle El, director of Straight from the Streets, a nonprofit that works with the homeless.
"But it's not just moving the problem from one place to another if we can establish that they'll get more support where they're going," she said.
The issue is particularly sensitive locally because "dumping" the homeless here has been a concern. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has in the past accused other cities, including Salt Lake City, of sending their homeless downtown. Goodman said Utah was sending its homeless south in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics, but officials there denied the allegations.
Donald Whitehead, executive director for the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless -- the nation's oldest nonprofit working on the issue -- said that there have been programs that have used free one-way bus tickets to dump their homeless on other cities, and other programs that have been successful.
He said that the ACLU showed that Cleveland was effectively dumping its homeless people outside city limits about five years ago, while Cincinnati had a nonprofit running an effective program to help people find a way back home.
"The two keys are that it be voluntary -- that people aren't being given one-way tickets just because they're on the streets -- and ... there has to be some support services on the other end," Whitehead said.
Peggy Christianson, job developer for one of five MOVE offices, a program in California's San Joaquin Valley that pays families to move out of that high-unemployment area to states where they can find work -- including Nevada, said that such a program works best if there is follow-up on its results.
"You have to show that the move means you won't be homeless anymore. You have to have follow-up," she said. "If you do, it's a win-win -- for the client who is no longer homeless and for the community that no longer has the burden to find shelter and other services."
The MOVE program has sent 1,300 families during the last five years to different states -- including about 80 to Southern Nevada.
Fricker, who supervises the Metro officers in charge of interviewing people applying to the program, said the officers will be calling participants in the coming months to see how they're doing back home.
Meanwhile, Lewis said that local homeless shelters, advocates and social service agencies are sending people every day to her office.
Lera-Randle El said she receives "four or five requests daily for getting a ride somewhere from people who are at the end of their rope and want to go home or anywhere where they think they'll do better."
The advocate said that she has often helped people in that situation in the past.
Rupp, who is also director of the parish at St. Timothy's Church in Henderson, said "a lot of churches ... do this routinely," including his own.
But they also tend not to follow up on those who get free bus tickets, Rupp said.
Clark County Social Service has a decades-old program that helps people get back home if they have been here less than six months and can show they will seek work where they're going. That program also has no background check or follow-up and tends not to help many homeless people. Still it spent more than $70,000 helping more than 500 people in the past year, said Lousie Davidaitis, social services manager for the agency.
"If you do this right -- with the interviews and the follow-up -- you can help a lot of people get back and get started again," Rupp said. "For a certain segment of the homeless population, it's an answer."
Fricker, of Metro, said that there are not enough services locally to help the homeless, and the program fills an important need.
"They're kind of circling the drain and our job is to make sure they don't go down," Fricker said.