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One-way ticket for the homeless

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Homeless people who want to live with family in another part of the U.S. may soon get a free one-way bus ride out of Medford.

The Medford City Council is considering setting aside $50,000 over a two-year period from $1.3 million in marijuana tax dollars. The program would be administered by social service agencies.

“Some people think, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re trying to get rid of the homeless people,’” said Councilor Kevin Stine, who proposed the idea. “No one’s forcing anyone to leave the area. It’s not Medford officials or police running people down and giving them a ticket to get out of here.”

Stine said details still need to be worked out, but the main idea is to have social service agencies assess the needs of homeless people to determine whether they’ve got family who are willing to let them move in.

Stine, who formerly worked at ACCESS, said he’s seen many people, including veterans, get evicted and struggle to find a place to live, ending up on the streets.

Referred to as “reunification” by the city, the idea is similar to Portland’s Ticket Home program, which also sometimes pays a $20-per-day stipend and sometimes includes luggage or clothing.

Stine said if a bus ticket is bought it may be that it’s non-refundable to avoid someone taking advantage of the program.

“I think we can implement it here and help out some people,” Stine said. “I’ve been looking at this for many months. Some people who have been involved in this type of program, they say it changed their life.”

Stine said he doesn’t know whether $50,000 will be too much or too little to adequately fund the program until it has been in operation for a while.

Orval Spence, a 59-year-old Medford resident who’s living on the streets, said, “It doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”

Spence, who has been homeless for more than seven years and was eating breakfast on a bench in Alba Park Thursday, said the program wouldn’t help him because he doesn’t have family to go live with.

“I guess it depends on their circumstances,” he said. “There are some people who would take advantage of it to get to another home.”

Spence said he recently qualified for disability, but he said he’ll be getting less than $800 a month, so he’s not sure how he can afford an apartment. He previously lived in Hope Village, a tiny community of shed-like houses, for five months but said he had to leave after “clashing” with other residents.

Elsewhere, similar ticket home programs have had mixed results, though many cities have declared them a success. Some homeless people find that living with family members doesn’t work out, and they end up on the streets again.

Portland and Multnomah County have budgeted $200,000 for the Ticket Home program and hundreds of homeless people have received bus, train or plane rides out of the city. While some of the homeless were sent to communities in Oregon, the most popular destination was California.

The Downtown San Diego Partnership provides free bus tickets for homeless people to go live with relatives in other cities. Critics of the program in San Diego call it “Greyhound therapy.”

According to a Dec. 20, 2017, article in The Guardian, cities in the U.S. have been offering free bus tickets to relocate for at least three decades. Most homeless people were sent to live with their parents or children, or extended family members.

The Guardian story found that the relocation program had resulted in 34,240 journeys during the three decades. California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have some of the highest rates per capita of homelessness. New York City, which has a similar program, had flown 650 people to foreign countries, including the Dominican Republic, Mexico, France and Nigeria.

Medford’s reunification program was approved by the City Budget Committee, but it still needs to be approved by the City Council in June. The Budget Committee comprises community members as well as the eight councilors and the mayor.

There was considerable debate in the Budget Committee about how to spend the marijuana tax money that resulted in support for a number of programs.

The committee also voted to give $100,000 for a homeless action plan and $96,850 to Addictions Recovery Center for the sobering unit.

Chad McComas, executive director of the homeless advocacy organization Rogue Retreat, said he’s been approached by the city to see whether his organization would participate in the program. Rogue Retreat runs the Kelly Shelter, Hope Village and operates other housing to help the homeless.

“The way that Kevin wants it to go, I will support it as long as we do our homework and they have a safe place to go,” he said. “Other towns have put people on a bus, and they end up here with no place to live other than in Alba Park.”

Alba Park typically has a dozen or more homeless people on a given day.

McComas said Medford appears to want to have another option to help homeless people get off the street.

“I’m against just putting people on a bus just to get rid of them,” he said.

Councilor Clay Bearnson, who runs Oregon Farmacy, a cannabis store, said he’s generally pretty happy with how the money got divvied up and had voiced strong opposition to using it to pay down the PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) debt.

“I want the community to see the benefits of this money,” he said. “I didn’t just want it to go into the general fund.”

He said he supports the idea of programs that will help the city deal with the homeless issue, though he said he wasn’t sure yet how the bus ticket program will actually work.

“The details have yet to be ironed out by the council,” he said.

Other programs that will benefit from the marijuana money include a $150,000 fire strategic plan, $300,000 for Greenway improvements and $5,000 for business development.

Council goals, which could include the Greenway, homelessness and other programs, will have an earmark of $398,150, and community visioning, which will include other potential programs, gets $200,000. Bearnson said the council hasn’t nailed down the specifics on how to spend the money for council goals, though he said it would provide the seed money to get projects off the ground.

In 2019-21, the city expects to get $1.15 million from marijuana taxes. Council goals would get $850,000 and a plan to decrease the public safety fees from $1.30 per residential unit a month to $1.06.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Clay Bearnson works with a costumer at the Oregon Farmacy in Medford on Wednesday.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune{ } Medford City Councilman Clay Bearnson works with a customer at his Oregon Farmacy in Medford on Wednesday. He said he supports using marijuana tax money to help the city deal with homeless issues.