A new pilot program in El Dorado County aims to reunite homeless people with family members outside the area by covering travel costs.
At an April 3 meeting, El Dorado County Board of Supervisors approved $2,500 from the general fund for the program that will be implemented by the sheriff's department's Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). Formed in May 2017, HOT is made up of three full-time officers dedicated to building relationships with the county's homeless population and connecting them with resources.
Sgt. Anthony Prencipe, spokesman for the sheriff's department, said HOT was running into homeless individuals who had family elsewhere, but didn't have the funds to get back to them.
"The HOT unit was trying to help people find day jobs to help them pay for it or they were paying for it out of their own pocket," explained Prencipe. "It's not about shipping them out of the county in any way, shape or form. We're looking to identify who is having homelessness problems and find out how we can help them get out of that problem."
Prencipe stressed that the relocation would only be offered to individuals whose family expressly wanted to take them in.
"In some of these cases we find family members that live out of state and they are dying to help their brother, but they haven't heard from him in 15 years or whatever it might be," said Prencipe. "We are connecting them and actually putting that family back together."
Cities around the country have been offering homeless people free bus or plane tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades. In San Francisco, the program is called Homeward Bound, and over the last 12 years, over 10,500 homeless people have been relocated from the city. In Fairfield, a similar program is called No Place Like Home.
An 18-month investigation by The Guardian into these types of programs around the country, which compiled a database of over 34,000 homeless relocation trips, found that the experiences for these travelers varied greatly. For some, it was the opportunity they needed to get their life together. Others went back to living on the streets in the area they relocated to or returned to the city they were bussed out of to be homeless again.
While many jurisdictions did not track the success of the relocation programs, some smaller programs did. According to the publication's report, published in Dec. 2017, Portland found that 70 percent of the 416 individuals they relocated were still housed after three months, while in Santa Monica, 60 percent remained housed after six months.
Though it's not a universal solution, it is a good option, according to Daniel Del Monte, deputy director of El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency.
"There isn't a single program that is effective for all subpopulations," said Del Monte. "It shouldn't be offered to people that have extreme substance abuse issues or extreme mental illness because the family will likely not be equipped to support them. But for folks who have fallen on hard times who simply need a place to stay and they would be able to self resolve with some support, it's certainly proven to work."
Nicole Zaborsky, board member for the Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless, said that every season they ask all of their guests in the seasonal Warm Room shelter if they have family they could reconnect with.
"As far as looking at trying to get homeless people into a situation that might be better, reuniting with family is definitely something we look at," said Zaborsky. "It's not always possible, it's not always received well by either party, but if it is, it's something we try and do."
Sometimes it's just a matter of helping an individual get an identification card so they can board a bus or a plane, or helping them track down family members using the shelter's phone or computer, according to Zaborsky.
"Our first season we helped a gentleman that came into the Warm Room get reunited with family back in Oregon. He needed to get ID first," said Zaborsky. "Sometimes it's just a matter of getting communication started."
This winter, the Warm Room served around 110 people with an average of 19 guests per night.