ST. PETERSBURG — As Mayor Bill Foster seeks to rid downtown of homeless people, one idea quietly has been stepped up: one-way bus tickets to somewhere else, courtesy of taxpayers.
The program has been in place for years, but funding recently has doubled. The result: Three times as many homeless people were given bus tickets last week than in a typical month last year.
It's one of the ways the city hopes to reduce the homeless population, which Foster considers one of his greatest challenges.
"It's a lot cheaper to send them home than it is to house them," Foster said. "We want to encourage them to go home. If they don't have anything to do here, we want them to go home."
On Thursday, the same day a new Pinellas County homeless shelter opened under intense publicity, St. Petersburg police homeless outreach officer Rich Linkiewicz put 18 people on a Greyhound bus.
By comparison, he arranged for six people to leave by bus in October and seven in November.
The difference was a recent increase from $2,000 to $4,000 in a "discretionary fund" paid for by city and county tax dollars. The fund is used by Linkiewicz and his partner, Operation PAR social worker Ryne Laxton, to help get homeless people off the streets.
The money is used for everything from lice treatment to motel stays, but most of it buys Greyhound tickets.
The two-person outreach team has offered bus tickets to homeless people for years as part of a "reunification program" designed to send homeless people back to their families in other states.
To get one, an officer must speak to a parent or other immediate family member who agrees to take in the homeless traveler when they arrive.
Advocates for the homeless have criticized the program, saying city officials have become too loose in their definition of family and that it is clear they merely want homeless people out of downtown.
G.W. Rolle, a local homeless advocate, said he recently spoke to people who were headed by bus to San Diego and Portland, Ore., courtesy of the taxpayers, even though they had no plan or family members there. He said he talked to several others who said they were offered one-way tickets to go anywhere, no questions asked.
"It doesn't solve the problem," he said. "It just moves it around."
Several homeless people also said they heard the city was offering free tickets for anyone who wanted to leave.
"They were telling people they could go to the (new shelter) or they could get a ticket to go anywhere they want, even if they didn't know anyone there," said Thomas Meder, 48, a homeless man who hangs out in Williams Park. "I thought it sounded like stepping out of one fire and into another."
Kevin Laroque, 55, said he was thinking about going to San Diego after speaking to Linkiewicz, even though he didn't know anyone there.
Linkiewicz, well-known among the homeless as "Officer Rich," says that's a lie.
The rules were loosened recently so that instead of an immediate family member, a homeless person can get a bus ticket to stay with a relative.
But no one gets a free ticket without a plan, he said.
"I'm not going to just give someone a ticket with no idea where they're going," said Linkiewicz, who has provided rides to shelters and other help to homeless people for five years. "That doesn't solve anything, and they'll just end up back here anyway. It would be a waste of money."
St. Petersburg homeless services director Rhonda Abbott, who tracks the fund's expenditures, said rumors that the city had resorted to buying homeless people one-way tickets to random cities simply are untrue.
"That's absolutely incorrect," she said. "We are not going to send a family somewhere else just to get them out of town. It's unethical, it's immoral, and we just wouldn't do it. Other cities might, but we would not."
Other cities have similar bus programs but also claim they check for family first. The New York Times reported last year that New York paid for more than 550 families to fly away — about 100 of them to Florida.
In 2003, a Denver television station reported that at least 63 homeless people from Minnesota were given tickets to Colorado, upsetting the Denver mayor. The county officials in Minnesota who sponsored the program said the story was an exaggeration, and the tickets were designed to help homeless people connect with family members.
Hillsborough County does not have a bus ticket program similar to the one in Pinellas, said Lisa Weikel of the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough, though it might help individuals with travel in certain instances.
Foster said bus tickets are an inexpensive way to get people off the street, and he fully supports the program. Linkiewicz agreed, and pointed to an example of someone who has cost taxpayers thousands of dollars every year.
Allen Mason, a 56-year-old homeless man who has been arrested 85 times in the past five years, recently accepted a free ticket from Linkiewicz to leave town.
Mason is headed to Boston, Linkiewicz said, where he has family.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.