ST. PETERSBURG — A city program bused nearly 1,000 homeless people to destinations all over the country during the past two years.
Dubbed "Family Reunification," the program covers the cost of one-way tickets for the passengers, some of whom are addicted to drugs or are mentally ill.
Yet St. Petersburg officials concede they don't make checks to verify that passengers subsequently end up with relatives or friends who will care for them.
While busing can be beneficial, without any follow-ups it can too easily become an exercise in "not in my back yard," said Kirsten Clanton, director of the Southern Legal Counsel's homeless advocacy project.
"You're just moving people around," Clanton said.
City officials say the busing program is popular and successful, good for both the city and the homeless. They say they make sure applicants have a place to go.
But keeping tabs on them after they leave? That's not their job, city officials say.
"I'm not a case worker," said St. Petersburg police Officer Rich Linkiewicz, a member of the city's street outreach team when asked if he checks up on anyone.
Are all the passengers going voluntarily? Have any participants run into medical or legal problems while on the buses? Do they come back to St. Petersburg?
Because of how the city manages the program, it's nearly impossible to find out.
Busing homeless people out of town is not new.
It has been done for so long around the country, critics have nicknames for it: Homeless dumping. Greyhound therapy.
St. Petersburg has been doing it for nine years. City officials insist they only want to give the homeless, battered women and stranded travelers a fresh start in a familiar place with a support system.
The city budgets $36,000 a year. A nonprofit agency, Daystar Life Center, helps run the program. It spent just over $37,000 last year in a mixture of county funds and private donations.
Here's how it works: The city and Daystar split the cost of the ticket, until city funds run out — usually by mid-month. Daystar will continue to buy tickets as long as its money lasts.
From August 2013 to last month, that was enough for 949 one-way tickets, or about 41 a month, according to data obtained by the Tampa Bay Times from Daystar. Trip costs ranged from $9 to $597.
The city says the program is voluntary, and no one is forced to leave by bus. The program is so popular that the homeless apply for tickets by waiting in long lines, city officials say. Volunteers at Daystar screen applicants to determine if potential passengers really have someone who will care for them. Daystar calls that person to confirm they are willing to do so.
Three nonprofits assist the city with the program — Daystar, Operation PAR, and Tampa Bay Information Network, or TBIN, which is a clearinghouse for social service data.
But after the passengers leave, no one with the city or the nonprofits calls to make sure they reunited.
That's an oversight that makes it difficult to assess whether the program is working or not, said Eric Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. Circling back later with a mere phone call is worth the trouble, he said.
"The cost to the system would be relatively minor and would really bring a lot of data and a way to judge its effectiveness," Tars said.
Other busing programs learned the hard way.
San Francisco's "Homeward Bound" has drawn positive reviews in dispatching more than 8,000 people via Greyhounds in the past 10 years.
But in 2006, the San Francisco Examiner reported that at least nine homeless people had been bused to homeless shelters in other cities. In addition, the newspaper found that in as many of 958 of the first 1,132 homeless people bused, officials placed no follow-up calls to determine if they were receiving "ongoing support."
San Francisco's response? It immediately stopped sending homeless people to shelters in other cities. And officials there have been making follow-up calls ever since.
Nevada's primary mental health hospital lost its accreditation after the Sacramento Bee in 2013 reported that it had sent about 1,500 patients on buses with no support, many of whom ended up homeless.
Others don't want to repeat past mistakes.
Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative, said her organization doesn't buy tickets for out-of-town travel at this time. But she wants to within five years.
If her agency does start buying bus tickets, Hayes-Triplett said, she will insist on follow-up calls.
When it comes to the homeless, St. Petersburg has had its share of bad publicity.
In 2007, police slashed transient tents with box cutters, which then-Mayor Rick Baker later conceded was a mistake. Three years later, the city was sued after it passed a series of ordinances aimed at curbing behaviors associated with homelessness, such as sleeping on sidewalks.
City officials say they've made strides to improve the city's homeless program. Those changes include a revision to its busing program.
In 2011, officials started calling before trips covered by the city to make sure passengers had caretakers awaiting them, said Jane Walker, Daystar's executive director.
One homeless advocate, G.W. Rolle, a critic in 2011, said he thought the program worked better now.
"They've cleaned it up," Rolle said. "They (Daystar officials) call and confirm that there is someone on the other end."
At least one recent rider, Timothy Muse, said he was happy with the service. Muse, 21, left his home in east Tennessee last year.
He came to St. Petersburg in January, where his stay had been difficult. As he awaited a screening interview, Muse said "it was a matter of life and death" that he be selected to go live with his fiance and her parents in Scott County, Tenn.
Muse's wish came true. His discounted ticket cost $143.50.
Daystar permitted the Times to interview Muse. What about the 949 passengers from the last two years?
Mayor Rick Kriseman's spokesman Ben Kirby initially said the city would ask the non-profit agencies to disclose the names so some could be contacted.
The three nonprofits that help the city with the program — Daystar, Operation PAR, and Tampa Bay Information Network, or TBIN — refused the Times' request for the names of the passengers, citing federal privacy laws.
When later told about the refusal, city officials backtracked. This time, City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch said names couldn't be released because of federal privacy laws relating to drug and alcohol treatment.
Tars, senior attorney for the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, said busing programs, if done right, can help people.
But he said withholding the records undermines accountability of the programs.
"There is no way for the public to judge," Tars said.
Secrecy hurts communication not just with the public, but also with other agencies dealing with the same homelessness issue, Clanton said. The lack of transparency insulates agencies from each other, hindering coordination and communication and leading to scenarios where "I'm sending someone to Ohio and Ohio is sending someone to Florida," Clanton said.
"Wouldn't it be better to be connected?"
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.