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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 4, 200712:00 PM EST

Just out of jail with no money, how do people get home?

by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

by Max Marbut

Staff Writer

Many arrested people don’t have much cash. After arriving at the Pre-trial Detention Facility and paying a $20 fee for booking, plus other charges for a toothbrush and other toiletries, it’s possible for someone to be released from incarceration penniless.

If the person doesn’t have a family member or friend to call to get a ride home, it could be difficult to get out of Downtown without at least 75 cents for bus fare. The problem is even greater if the person isn’t from Jacksonville and “home” is outside Duval County or, worse yet, out-of-state.

Most social service agencies don’t have the resources to assist people with issues involving travel. Some don’t believe merely providing a way to “get out of town” is the answer, either.

“We don’t believe in what’s called ‘Greyhound therapy’,” said Mary Spuhler, executive director of Downtown Ecumenical Services (DES). “We don’t like to move problems to other cities.”

Spuhler added that she can remember instances when people would come to DES and say they’d been given a bus ticket from a city in South Florida to get as far as Jacksonville, but still needed transportation assistance to make it further north. That’s not the role the agency plays.

“We focus our efforts on the three most vulnerable populations: situations involving minor children, people over 60 years of age and those with documented disabilities,” said Spuhler.

People who need help to get back home also go to the Salvation Army. While some assistance is available there, it’s not the place to go for a free bus ticket.

“We don’t have the funds to provide that service,” said Salvation Army Social Services Director Paul Stasi. “We can provide some rent and utilities assistance, but we’re a shelter. If a person can’t find help to get home, we can at least provide shelter for them while they contact their families, or they might get a day-labor job for a short while to make money to buy a ticket or get their car fixed.”

Travelers Aid International provides some help. The nonprofit has been in operation since the mid-19th century when the first office opened in St. Louis. People who were on their way to settle the wide-open frontier or heading to California for the Gold Rush often needed help while traveling.

By the early 20th century, the organization had changed and provided inter-city travel assistance to immigrants or displaced workers who wanted to return to their homes. During World War II, Travelers Aid was one of the original United Services Organizations – USO – and was in place at bus stations and railway depots to provide travel assistance to service men and women.

The Jacksonville Travelers Aid office is part of the Catholic Charities Bureau.

“We’re the only office that provides that service,” said John Fitzgerald, director of emergency services for Catholic Charities.

He said while emergency services account for 60 percent of the organization’s $3 million annual budget, travel assistance is a small line item.

“Our objective is to keep people in their homes,” Fitzgerald said. “We provide assistance to people who have double bills for rent or utilities or are facing eviction.”

When Travelers Aid assistance is offered, it’s not as simple as a free ticket to get out of town.

“We provide 25 percent of the ticket price,” said Fitzgerald. “Another agency or group has to provide the rest.”

After the entire ticket cost is provided, Catholic Charities issues a non-refundable coupon in the name of the person traveling that can be redeemed for an actual ticket – and that’s not the final requirement.

“There has to be someone at the other end who can help the person,” said Fitzgerald. “They have to give us the phone number and name of an employer or family member at their destination who can help them.”

Going to any social-service organization is the first step to getting financial help with emergency travel. While Catholic Charities is the only local provider with a specific program in place, Fitzgerald said any starting point is a good one.

“Different agencies provide different areas of assistance,” he said. “Once you contact any agency and get in the social service network, you can find the help you need.”

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