LANCASTER, CALIF. Andrea and Greg Killgore were living on the streets in Las Vegas when they decided to relocate to Lancaster in early March. They thought their job prospects would be better in California.
But they were unable to find work and feared they would end up back on the streets.
Before long, they were on a bus headed to Denver, where a relative had agreed to take them in. To their surprise, a local nonprofit group had agreed to pay for their one-way ticket out of town.
Since January, the Grace Resource Center has offered to cover transportation expenses for homeless people to return to their home states or wherever they have family or other means of support. So far the group has spent about $2,500 to help more than a dozen people leave Lancaster through the Opportunity Bus Pass Program.
“It’s to help people get well and start over,” said Steve Baker, the center’s executive director.
Andrea Killgore, 31, said she was grateful for the free bus voucher.
“This is a step for us to get back on our feet,” Killgore said. Without it, she said, “we’d be on the streets, or stuck here until my next (Social Security) check.”
Mayor R. Rex Parris is a strong advocate of the bus program and has contributed $10,000 of his own money.
Homeless people who have relocated to Lancaster are putting a strain on local police and social services, Parris said. The city’s own needy should come first, he said.
“We have an obligation to take care of our own homeless,” he said.
There are an estimated 73,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County, including at least 2,000 in the Antelope Valley, the area around Lancaster, on any given night, according to statistics from the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Anecdotal evidence suggests the number is rising because of the economic downturn, said Christine Marge, officer of the agency’s Basic Needs program.
Some homeless advocates take issue with the philosophy behind homeless busing programs.
“It makes the assumption that someone has some fabulous support system someplace far away,” said Anat Rubin, director of public policy at Lamp Community, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles’ skid row, who acknowledged that she was not familiar with the specifics of Grace’s program. “If someone is living on the street, the likelihood they have some great support system someplace else is slim.”
So far, most beneficiaries of the free bus program in Lancaster have been local residents who chose to go elsewhere, according to the Grace Resource Center.
In addition to hot meals and showers, the center provides emergency groceries, clothing, counseling and other services to at least 8,000 needy residents each month, officials said.
Baker, the center’s director and a pastor for more than three decades, said that he and the mayor had different motivations for the bus-pass program but that they agreed on the goal: to reduce homelessness in Lancaster and help people get their lives back on track.
“We’re not in the business of shipping people out of here,” Baker said. “We’re in the ministry of compassion. We know that God can turn people’s lives around.”