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    Senior Member JohnDoe2's Avatar
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    Aug 2008
    PARADISE (San Diego)

    Bussed Out How America moves it's homeless

    Bussed out
    How America moves its homeless

    (Graphics and pictures at link.)

    Each year, US cities give thousands of homeless people one-way bus tickets out of town. An 18-month nationwide investigation by the Guardian reveals, for the first time, what really happens at journey’s end

    By the Outside in America team
    20 December 2017

    Quinn Raber arrived at a San Francisco bus station lugging a canvas bag containing all of his belongings: jeans, socks, underwear, pajamas. It was 1pm on a typically overcast day in August.

    An unassuming 27-year-old, Raber seemed worn down: his skin was sun-reddened, he was unshaven, and a hat was pulled over his ruffled blond hair. After showing the driver a one-way ticket purchased for him by the city of San Francisco, he climbed the steps of the Greyhound bus.

    He traveled 2,275 miles over three days to reach his destination: Indianapolis.

    Cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades. In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the country and costing the public millions of dollars.

    But until now there has never been a systematic, nationwide assessment of the consequences. Where are these people being moved to? What impact are these programs having on the cities that send and the cities that receive them? And what happens to these homeless people after they reach their destination?

    In an 18-month investigation, the Guardian has conducted the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs, compiling a database of around 34,240 journeys and analyzing their effect on cities and people.

    A count earlier this year found half a million homeless people on one night in America. The problem is most severe in the west, where rates of homelessness are skyrocketing in a number of major cities, and where states like California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have some of the highest rates of per capita homelessness.

    These are also the states where homeless relocation programs are concentrated. Using public record laws, the Guardian obtained data from 16 cities and counties that give homeless people free bus tickets to live elsewhere.

    The data from these cities has been compiled to build the first comprehensive picture of America’s homeless relocation programs. Over the past six years, the period for which our data is most complete, we are able to track where more than 20,000 homeless people have been sent to and from within the mainland US.

    Raber had been feeling sick, tired and depressed in San Francisco, and after three years living on the streets he decided to take his chances in Indianapolis, where he grew up. An old friend had offered him a living room to sleep in and told him there was a possibility of a job as a dishwasher at a nearby fine-dining fish restaurant.

    “I’m just going to go back and work,” Raber said, and “save money, and just live”.

    The Guardian has determined the outcomes of several dozen journeys based on interviews with homeless people who were relocated and friends and relatives who received them at their destination, and the shelter managers, police officers and outreach workers who supplied them with their one-way tickets.

    Some of these journeys provide a route out of homelessness, and many recipients of free tickets said they are grateful for the opportunity for a fresh start.

    Returning to places they previously lived, many rediscover old support networks, finding a safe place to sleep, caring friends or family, and the stepping stones that lead, eventually, to their own home.

    Nan Roman, head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said bus programs can be a “positive”, although not a panacea, in part because most people are homeless in places they are from.

    That is far from the whole story, however.

    Once they get you out of their city, they really don’t care what happens to you

    - Jeff Weinberger, Florida Homelessness Action Coalition

    While the stated goal of San Francisco’s Homeward Bound and similar programs is helping people, the schemes also serve the interests of cities, which view free bus tickets as a cheap and effective way of cutting their homeless populations.

    People are routinely sent thousands of miles away after only a cursory check by authorities to establish they have a suitable place to stay once they get there.

    Some said they feel pressured into taking tickets, and others described ending up on the streets within weeks of their arrival.

    Jeff Weinberger, co-founder of the Florida

    Homelessness Action Coalition, a not-for-profit that operates in a state with four bus programs, said the schemes are a “smoke-and-mirrors ruse tantamount to shifting around the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than reducing homelessness”.

    “Once they get you out of their city, they really don’t care what happens to you.”

    A one-way ticket off the island

    Willie Romines, Key West

    Willie Romines was attracted to Key West for the same reasons as the tourists and billionaires whose yachts fill the marina. “It’s beautiful, it’s paradise,” he said. “You meet a lot of people from different countries.” For homeless people like Romines, there was also the added benefit of a mattress at the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (Kots).

    But the 62-year-old former painter said his life on the island took a turn for the worse about five years ago, after he fell off his bicycle and broke his ankle in four places. He decided to spend a couple of months recuperating at a friend’s house in Ocala, and the shelter offered him a free bus ticket for the 460-mile trip.

    He insists he was never told that by agreeing to take that Greyhound bus ticket off of the island, he was also promising never to come back.

    I would never have taken the ticket if I had known this would happen

    - Willie Romines

    Romines said when he took his ticket, he was told he could return to the shelter after six months. But when he came back to Key West, still limping from his badly injured leg, he said he was informed by shelter employees that the ban was for life. He would have to sleep on the streets.

    “I would never have taken the ticket if I had known this would happen,” he said. “They stabbed me in the back is what they did.”

    Willie Romines, 62, took the bus from Key West to Ocala, Florida.

    The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (Shal), a not-for-profit that runs the shelter, requires recipients of bus tickets to sign a contract confirming their relocation will be “permanent” and acknowledging they will “no longer be eligible” for homeless services upon their return.

    Of the 16 cities that shared their data with the Guardian, Key West was the only program with a policy expressly banning homeless people returning. It is also the only program that does not have a record of where it has sent 350 or so people who have been given one-way tickets off the island since 2014.

    In many respects, however, Key West’s bus program is similar to the others in the database.

    Homeless people hear about bus schemes through

    word of mouth or are offered a free ticket by a caseworker. To qualify, they must provide a contact for a friend or relative who will receive them at their chosen destination. The shelter then calls that person to check the homeless traveler will have somewhere suitable to stay.

    No one is supposed to be put on a bus so they can be homeless elsewhere, and there is broad agreement that no tickets should be given to those with outstanding warrants.

    John Miller, the executive director of Shal, said his organisation also tries to find homeless people work on the island and, where possible, a transition to housing.

    But he insists the bus relocation program is a valuable service, and said he often receives letters of gratitude.

    Most of the people who stay at the shelter are locals, he said, but there are others who come to Key West and discover it is not the tropical paradise they expected.

    “Between the heat and the bugs, and the lack of services, and the low wages and the high rents, it is just not a good place to be homeless. It might be one of the worst places in the country to be homeless. The only thing you can say is you’re not going to freeze to death.”

    Nonetheless, Miller said around one in 10 homeless people who take a free ticket off the island boomerang back, only to discover that they have no access to the few services that were previously available to them.

    That was the easiest sell … give us money and we’ll ship our problem to somebody else

    - John Miller, Southernmost Homeless Assistance League

    “They’re like: well I didn’t think you were serious,” he said. “We’re like: yeah, we’re serious. Some of those gather up their change and leave again. And then we have some that are sleeping on Higgs beach or whatever.”

    Miller said that Romines, who was issued his ticket under a previous scheme, is not on the official list of people banned from the shelter. Romines, however, insists he was told he was not permitted to sleep there, and police records show he has been arrested three times for sleeping outside, including on Higgs beach, a strip of sand on the south of the island.

    Mike Tolbert, former shelter official, defends the policy of banning people from returning.

    Miller conceded that members of his board had been “conflicted” over the morality of turning homeless people away because they previously took a free bus ticket.

    But he maintained the policy was justified to discourage abuse – a point echoed by his former deputy, Mike Tolbert, who said it was the only way to prevent the shelter from being used as a “travel agency”.

    There is another benefit to the shelter in banning ticket recipients from coming back: it is a policy that can appeal to locals on the island. Miller asks residents to contribute to a fund that will buy homeless people one-way tickets to relocate elsewhere. He makes clear that they will not be allowed to come back.

    “That, I figured, was the easiest ‘sell’,” Miller said. “Give us money and we’ll ship our homeless problem to somebody else.”

    The hundreds who fly overseas

    wo children tumbled out of a cab at New York City’s John F Kennedy airport on a humid evening in July. They enthusiastically helped pull suitcases onto the crowded curb. Their parents looked more subdued; they felt they were being strong-armed by city officials to board a flight to Puerto Rico.

    “I really don’t want to go back,” Jose Ortiz, 28, had said hours earlier, standing outside the austere brick building in the Bronx where his family had been given temporary shelter as the city assessed their case, a standard procedure. “They said we could only stay in this apartment for 10 days, after that we might be on the street.”

    New York appears to have been the first major city to begin a relocation program for homeless people, back in 1987.

    After the current iteration of the program was relaunched during the tenure of mayor Michael Bloomberg, it ballooned, and its relocation scheme is now far larger than any other in the nation. The city homelessness department budgets $500,000 for it annually.

    Almost half the approximately 34,000 journeys analyzed by the Guardian originate from New York. In contrast with other relocation initiatives, New York is notable for moving large numbers of families, like the Ortizes.

    New York does not only move homeless people on buses. About 20% of travelers were given sometimes-costly airline tickets.

    Homeless relocations from New York City

    Around 650 people were flown to foreign countries.

    Ortiz and his family did not last long on the mainland.

    They first moved to Delaware in early 2017 to live with his mother. When that did not work out they packed up and moved to New York, where Ortiz pleaded with the city’s homelessness department for help until he could find a job.

    We feel like animals, like they put us in a garbage bag and put us to the side

    - Jose Ortiz

    He was told the family was ineligible for services because they had housing options elsewhere, notably in Puerto Rico with his partner’s mother. To officials in New York, steering the family into accommodation instead of the city homeless system was the most sensible option. Ortiz’s decision to take the airline ticket was voluntary, but he did not feel he had much choice given the alternative likely meant sleeping in the park or on a street corner.

    “We feel like animals, like they put us in a garbage bag and put us to the side on the street,” he said.

    They, like others relocated to Puerto Rico, were being moved from a city with a median household income of $60,741 to an island with one of $19,606, and an unemployment rate twice the national average.

    It is a stark example of a pattern that is replicated through most of the journeys, which, analysis shows, have the overall effect of moving homeless people from rich places to poorer places.

    Most ticket recipients are relocated to places with a lower median income

    Number of people
    lower medianincomesame medianincomehigher medianincome
    12%traveled to cities where the average income is higher
    88% traveled to cities where the average income is lower
    New York to SanJuan Chico to Seattle

    There are some obvious reasons why impoverished homeless people might choose to relocate to less-wealthy cities, such as the availability of cheaper housing and a lower cost of living. To some extent the apparent transfer of homeless people from richer to poorer locations is a product of the data: relocation programs are often based in cities with high median incomes such as San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Palm Beach.

    However, the repercussions of this trend in the extreme cases bear considering. “The folks who so often fall into homelessness come from communities that have been experiencing a Great Recession for decades, living in neighborhoods with broken or absent support systems, enervated public schools, and little or no economic prospects to lift themselves up beyond their current circumstances,” said Arnold Cohen, president and CEO of The Partnership for the Homeless in New York. “Moving them out to other struggling neighborhoods is just another way of neglecting the root issues that continue to drive the problem.”

    Just over a week after arriving in Puerto Rico, Ortiz sent a Facebook message to say that his prospects were looking up: he had an interview for a job as a security guard. In late September, Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, devastating the island’s infrastructure and sending its economy into freefall.

    The Guardian has reached out to the family but not heard from them since.

    A lifeline, or a broken system?

    Fran Luciano, Fort Lauderdale

    For as long as cities have been offering homeless people free tickets to go elsewhere, the programs have attracted controversy. In the run-up to the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, the city was accused of getting rid of homeless people by distributing free tickets for them to leave.

    In 2013, the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, a state-run facility, was alleged to have discharged around 1,500 patients, often with little more than their medication and a bus voucher to leave the city. One of the patients killed themselves after their bus journey and another committed a homicide, according to a lawsuit brought by former patients.

    While high-profile abuses such as these have attracted headlines, there has been far less attention on whether relocating homeless people makes sense in the first place. Among the cities that provided data to the Guardian, there was an almost total lack of long-term follow-up with the recipients of bus tickets to check whether their relocation had been a success.

    San Francisco provided records showing that in the period from 2010 to 2015, only three travelers were contacted once they had left. “Our record-keeping, as you discovered, has not always been that great,” said Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for the city’s homelessness department. Records from 2016 onwards, when different officials ran the program, showed that a majority of people were “contacted” once they reached their destination, but the city declined to share whether they were actually housed, citing privacy concerns.

    Smaller schemes had mixed results: Portland found that around 70% of 416 travelers were still housed three months after traveling, and of those leaving Santa Monica, 60% remained housed six months later.

    “I think it begs for more research,” said Michelle Flynn, a program director at the shelter that gives out tickets in Salt Lake City. Following up with homeless people who are given tickets in the weeks, months and years after they have left is not a trivial undertaking, especially for shelters that are short-staffed and funded with slim budgets, and when homeless people are by definition hard to trace. “That would probably cost even more than what we’re saving on the actual trips,” said Tom Stagg, an administrator in Santa Cruz.

    If I hadn’t gotten that ticket I would have drunk myself to death

    - Tiffany Schiessl

    The interviews the Guardian has conducted with recipients of bus tickets indicate the outcome of their journeys can vary hugely.

    Tiffany Schiessl credits her bus journey with saving her life. She was living in a tent beside some railroad tracks in Fort Lauderdale when her alcoholism took her to the brink of death. She recalls waking up in the mornings and having to drink cans of beer to stop herself from shaking and vomiting.

    She was diagnosed with early-stage cirrhosis and chronic pancreatitis in 2015, the year she suffered a pulmonary embolism from a blood clot. She was 22 years old.

    It was her doctor who recommended she use Fort Lauderdale’s bus program to move in with her mother, Marleen, who had previously been unable to house Tiffany when she experienced difficulties after suffering heart attacks and a stroke. Marleen lived in Lehigh Acres, on the other side of the state. When Tiffany got off the bus, Marleen was horrified: Tiffany’s weight had dropped to 94lbs, her face was sunken and her vertebrae were poking out through the skin of her back.

    Marleen Schiessl and her daughter Tiffany Schiessl outside Marleen’s home in Lehigh Acres, Florida.

    Now Tiffany Schiessl is on the road to recovery, contemplating moving into her own home and looking to find work as a counselor. She credits the turnaround in part to her mother, who gave her the care “of someone who wants to see you succeed”. She adds: “If I hadn’t gotten that ticket I would have drunk myself to death.”

    Those who agreed to take in bus-ticket recipients spoke candidly about the challenges, both financial and emotional, of taking responsibility for formerly homeless family members. Rick Williams, a Boeing technician in Everett, Washington, said he would give his son everything he needed to get on his feet – food, money, shelter – for six months after he came home from Florida in mid-2017. “I want to see him succeed,” Williams said. “All I can do is help him as best I can.”

    Kathy Mathews, who agreed to host her brother, Alan, in Whitehall, Pennsylvania, after he traveled from Sarasota, said the situation was “absolutely a little bit of a strain”. But she added: “I know that had he been left where he was it wasn’t going to get any better.”

    But not everyone receiving homeless people at their destinations is so accommodating.

    The underlying assumption of the relocation programs, which have names such as “Homeward Bound” and “Family Reunification”, is that returning to a hometown or relative will lead to a process of rehabilitation. But for some, homelessness is driven by domestic conflicts and broken relationships, issues that may be rooted in the places they are returning to.

    Last year Fort Lauderdale sent Fran Luciano, 49, back to her native New York to stay with her ex-husband, according to program records. A home health aide who cared for patients with cancer before she ended up homeless, Luciano had been sleeping in bus shelters and at the airport in the Florida city and desperately wanted to leave.

    They should’ve said, ‘are you going have a place to stay?’

    - Fran Luciano

    When Fort Lauderdale offered her a bus ticket back to New York, she said her instant reaction was: “Yeah, of course I want to go home.” The city asked for a contact there, and Luciano could only think to provide her ex-husband’s details, although she said she stressed she could not stay with him given their divorce was acrimonious.

    When she arrived at the Greyhound station in New York, Luciano sat on her luggage and wondered where to go. For around six months she shuttled between shelters, eventually ending up in the small town of Nanuet, where she spent nights in McDonald’s and was assaulted. She is now back in Fort Lauderdale.

    “They should’ve said, ‘you’ve got to make sure’,” she said of the outreach workers who gave her a ticket.

    “Are you going to be out on the streets there? Are you going to have a place to stay?’”

    Even relatives of homeless people who assure outreach workers they can look after their loved one may struggle to live up to that ambition.

    Rose Thompson, 58, said she decided to leave Key West last year after her problems with drugs and alcohol resulted in her collapsing at a soup kitchen.

    She opted to relocate to Morgantown, West Virginia, to stay with her daughter, who agreed to host her. But when she arrived, she discovered she would have to share a trailer with seven other people.

    Rose Thompson, 58, went back to Key West only three weeks after leaving.

    Thompson slept on the sofa for two weeks before her daughter took her to a Morgantown homeless shelter. “It was just better to come back here where I know people,” she said of her decision to return to Key West.

    There is limited information in the data held by relocation programs about precisely who is hosting homeless people at their destinations. But three Florida cities – Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota and West Palm Beach – did keep a record.

    The aggregate data shows a wide variation in the types of people that homeless people are going to live with, from brothers and sisters to friends and employers.

    The people and institutions who receive homeless travelers

    Parents and children Siblings and grandparents Other relatives Friends and acquaintances Institutions & others

    Bail bondsman




    An official with the Sarasota program said he did not know why two homeless people were sent to meet with bail bondsmen in South Carolina and Indiana earlier this year, but did not consider this problematic.

    A third was put on a bus to Traverse City, Michigan, where he lived in a tent. A fourth person, meanwhile, said Key West sent her to a homeless shelter in Sarasota.

    While some programs consider it essential to check for active arrest warrants before dispatching people, others do not perform such extensive research.

    In a random sampling of around 100 ticket recipients from Salt Lake City, the Guardian found that at least five had outstanding warrants at the time they were dispatched. A number were for minor public nuisance and drug crimes that routinely and – in the opinion of many advocates – unfairly dog homeless people.

    Others were more serious, including one recipient with two warrants for domestic violence who received a bus ticket to Texas last year, and another man with an assault warrant who traveled to Montana.

    Asked why the shelter had given tickets to men wanted by the police, Flynn said that so far this had not proved problematic. “We are quite open to exploring this as a part of the travel program,” she added.

    The end of the road

    Quinn Raber, San Francisco

    Raber wanted his relocation to Indianapolis to be an escape. Within a week of arriving it was clear it might not last as one for very long. “Starting over is really tough,” he said by phone in August. He found work at a burger restaurant, but the friend he was living with decided to enter an addiction-recovery program, leaving Raber with nowhere to stay. He was overtaken by a sense of claustrophobia. “I feel like being outside I can breathe better,” he said. “It kind of makes me feel like coming back to California.”

    San Francisco has one of the largest homeless populations in America, and it is an expensive problem to have. Once the cost of policing and medical services is taken into account, each chronically homeless person is estimated to cost the city $80,000 annually.

    Bus tickets cost a few hundred dollars.

    The city does not deny there is a financial incentive behind its program, which was launched in 2005 when officials considered the example of nearby Sacramento, which was reducing its homeless population by giving people tickets to leave.

    Commander David Lazar, who at the time was a lieutenant representing the San Francisco police department on homeless issues, said there were humanitarian reasons he and others wanted to introduce the program in the city. But he added that giving free bus tickets was considered a “win-win” because each homeless person that left was “one less call for services”.

    “How many more people would have been in San Francisco had we not had this program?” asks Lazar.

    The dataset, which reveals the number of homeless people given tickets in and out of the city, can help answer that question.

    Bus journeys into city City homeless population 1406 Bus journeys out of city2500

    How San Francisco’s bus program impacts its homeless population


    Over the last 12 years, San Francisco’s homeless population has grown from around 6,200 to just over 7,600, according to the city's counts. During that period, a small number of people in other cities have been given free tickets to relocate to San Francisco. A far larger number – more than 10,500 homeless people – have been moved out of San Francisco on buses.

    What might the San Francisco homeless population have looked like if homeless people had never been bussed into and out of the city?

    This data is partial; it does not include, for example, housed San Franciscans who become homeless while living in the city, the many homeless people who travel to and from San Francisco independently of relocation programs, or those homeless people who might have by now found a home. But it does give a rough illustration in response to Lazar’s question.

    If these relocation programs did not exist, and the people San Francisco has bussed out of the city had stayed put, there could be as many as 18,000 homeless people currently in the city, more than twice the current population.

    The US government mandates cities and other municipalities count their homeless street populations every two years; mayors are always keen for the tallies to show numbers are not on the rise. In 2009, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg lauded his own city’s bussing scheme because it “saves the taxpayers of New York City an enormous amount of money”.

    Officials currently involved in running programs in Denver, Jacksonville, and Salt Lake City all told the Guardian they saw them as cost-effective programs that delivered their cities value for money by reducing the numbers living on their streets.

    Yet it appears bussing schemes are also being used to give a misleading impression about the extent to which cities are actually solving homelessness.

    Almost half the people San Francisco claims to have helped lift out of homelessness were simply given one-way tickets

    When San Francisco, for example, reports on the number of people “exiting” homelessness, it includes the tally of people who are put on a bus and relocated elsewhere in the country. It turns out that almost half of the 7,000 homeless people San Francisco claims to have helped lift out of homelessness in the period of 2013-16 were simply given one-way tickets out of the city.

    Such sleights of hand are not unique to San Francisco; a travel program operated by a homelessness not-for-profit in Oahu, Hawaii, claimed in documents shared with the Guardian that several hundred people who were offered subsidized plane tickets to the mainland were moved “out of homelessness”.

    But the money spent on bus tickets does not necessarily address the root causes of homelessness.

    “There may be cases where you have good intentions of trying to return that person back to that family”, but the family is “why they were homeless in the first place”, said Bob Erlenbusch, a longtime advocate based in Sacramento, California. As examples he cited domestic violence victims, transgender youth facing rejection by their parents, and families unable to deal with a relative’s mental health or substance-abuse problems.

    The records kept by San Francisco will presumably state that Raber ceased being homeless when he was relocated to Indianapolis in August: one more person they can call a success story. That’s despite the fact he has been back in San Francisco for three months.

    Raber appeared relaxed as he sat on a Greyhound bus crossing the Bay Bridge to bring him back into the city.

    The sojourn in Indianapolis had been worth it because he “was not in a good state” when he left San Francisco, he said. “It helped me get my mind back on track and my body back on track.”

    But when it became clear that his friend’s substance-abuse issues would leave him homeless, he decided to return to San Francisco – paying for the ticket with his own money.

    Quinn Raber, now 28, said he never saw his departure from San Francisco as permanent.

    Today his circumstances are almost exactly the same as they were before he left. He spends part of the month crashing in a friend’s room in a rundown residential hotel, and the rest bedding down on the sidewalk with a blanket and pillow in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood, where many other homeless people congregate. He drags his belongings around in a suitcase with broken wheels, and hopes to move into a discarded tent that he found recently.

    He is adamant that he did not mislead San Francisco’s bus program officials about his intentions. As he tells it, his return to the city he loves, despite the hardships he faces there, was almost ordained.

    “I told them up front that I might not stay where they’re sending me,” he said. “San Francisco is a place that people always end up going back to at some point.”
    Last edited by JohnDoe2; 03-11-2018 at 07:12 PM.

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    PARADISE (San Diego)
    Homeless Relocations From New York City

    The most popular US mainland destinations were two cities in the South: Orlando, Florida, 779 and Atlanta, Georgia, 775.

    Around 650 were flown for foreign countries.

    New Zealand







    Dominican Republic

    NYC Longest journey Wellington, New Zealand (8,944 mi)


    2,350 were flown to Puerto Rico.

    Homeless relocations from New York City

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    Bus program sends homeless people out of San Diego to live with relatives in other cities

    John Wilkens Contact Reporter

    • Family Reunification Program in San Diego pays for one-way, one-time bus tickets so homeless people can live with relatives or friends in other cities. It’s relocated 1,700 people in six years.
    • Critics call these efforts “Greyhound therapy” and say all they do is move the homeless from one place to another. Officials acknowledge it is hard to keep track of the travelers once they leave.
    • The San Diego Housing Commission considers it a success and recently more than doubled its grant to the program, which is run by the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
    • Several homeless people who used the program say it changed their lives.


    From all appearances, Judy Bryant wanted out of San Diego.

    For six years, the 48-year-old woman has been homeless here, and when she walked into an office at St. Vincent de Paul Village on a recent morning, she said she’s had enough of sleeping on concrete. She spent the previous night on the back steps of a downtown apartment building.

    Her daughter back home in North Carolina has a place for Bryant to stay if she can figure out how to get there.
    That’s where the Family Reunification Program comes in.
    Run by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, it provides free bus tickets for homeless people to go live with relatives in other cities. If Bryant’s story checks out, she could be on board that night and back in North Carolina in three days.

    “It’s a way for people to re-connect with their family support systems and start over,” said Alonso Vivas, executive director of the partnership’s Clean & Safe team, which runs the program.

    Critics call relocation efforts like this “Greyhound therapy” and say all they do is shuffle the homeless from one place to another. But the programs, cheaper than providing housing, are popular in cities all across America, and the one in San Diego is expanding.

    After sending about 1,100 people to other places from early 2012 through mid- 2017, it’s bused out almost 600 in the last eight months.

    Part of the surge comes from aggressive outreach by the program. It dispatches a worker in a golf cart on weekdays to look for potential travelers. It recruits in temporary shelters. It gets referrals from the police and homeless-assistance agencies.

    Some observers said the increase may also be due to law enforcement sweeps in the downtown area that are making it harder for the unsheltered homeless there — 1,276 people, according to a count last year — to pitch tents on sidewalks and sleep in doorways.

    “Will people be more susceptible to using the program because they feel like there are no other options here?” asked Michael McConnell, former vice chairman of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “That’s my fear, and I’m not so sure the city would care.”

    Program officials said caring is central to what they do. They point to success stories involving disabled veterans, domestic violence survivors and the mentally ill, all off to what they hope are better futures in almost every state in the country.

    Among them was Angelo Doyle, 42, who came to San Diego from Memphis, Tenn., last year, “trying to start a new life.” He moved in with a cousin. “I thought he was paying his bills and he wasn’t,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “We got evicted. It was horrifying.”

    Blind, with no other family or friends here to contact, he reached out to various agencies for housing but “nobody could help me as fast as I needed,” he said. Then he heard about the Family Reunification Program. Outreach coordinator Latara Hamilton put him on a bus back to Tennessee.

    “She saved my life,” Doyle said.

    Reaching out

    On a recent weekday morning, Jill Kernes steered a golf cart along the streets of downtown San Diego. She was looking for people she refers to not as homeless, but as “housing challenged.”

    Kernes is an outreach coordinator for the Family Reunification Program. She’s been doing the job for about nine months, after a 10-year career as a sheriff’s deputy ended. A tussle with an inmate at Las Colinas jail left her with a broken shooting wrist and a medical retirement.

    She sees outreach work as a calling. “These people spend their days feeling invisible,” she said. “I see them. They are totally visible to me.”

    Her approach is all carrot, no stick. “How you doing, honey?” she said as she approached a woman sitting against the side of a building in East Village. The woman had her belongings in black trash bags. Kernes offered her new socks, which the woman accepted.

    Then Kernes asked if she’d heard about the bus program. “Do you have family you’d like to reconnect with? We’ll help you get there, anywhere in the U.S. We’ll pay for the ticket.”

    The woman nodded in a vague way. Kernes handed her a program flier but didn’t push further.

    “It wasn’t a ‘yes’ and it wasn’t a ‘no,’” she said a few minutes later as she walked back to the golf cart. “It was a ‘maybe.’ I can work with ‘maybe.’”

    Almost 40 percent of those who get on a bus hear about the program through the outreach efforts. On a typical day, Kernes interacts with more than 80 homeless people, she said. Some know her by name now.

    She knows them by their stories.

    Many arrive in San Diego with unrealistic expectations about the job market or the affordability of housing, she said. “They come here for the dream and the first night they get robbed and wind up sleeping in the park.”

    The newly homeless have proven the easiest to attract, according to statistics kept by the program. Since last June, almost half of those leaving via buses have been on the streets here for less than six months. One woman had been here only two hours.

    The long-term homeless are another matter. Less than 6 percent of the Greyhound riders since last June have been homeless for longer than five years.

    “This is their life now,” Kernes said. “They’ve lost track of their families.”

    At Horton Plaza, she parked the golf cart, hopped out and said, “Let’s see if there are any lives we can change.” She approached a couple sitting on a bench, surrounded by suitcases. They had a small dog with them.

    “Is there family we could connect you with?” Kernes asked.

    “We’ll send you anywhere in the continental U.S.”

    The woman thought for a few seconds. “All dead,” she said.

    “All dead,” the man echoed.

    The vetting process

    It’s a one-way, one-time offer. Those who accept are asked to move quickly.

    “This isn’t a travel agency,” said Ketra Carter, lead homeless outreach coordinator. “You can’t come here and say you’d like to schedule something for April. You’re going now.”

    Bryant, the homeless woman from North Carolina, seemed ready. She came in to St. Vincent de Paul in East Village a couple of weeks ago and went first to Travelers Aid, the nonprofit that’s been helping the stranded in San Diego for more than a century.

    Case manager Shannon Lamoureux checked to make sure Bryant hadn’t gone Greyhound before — a no-go if she had — and then wrote down upcoming departure times for bus rides to Dunn, N.C.

    Carter ran a criminal-records check on a database. Registered sex offenders are out. So, too, convicted arsonists. There can’t be any warrants.

    Everything came up clean. Carter phoned Bryant’s daughter to confirm she was OK with her mom living there. Sometimes the person on the other end says “no.”

    The daughter said “yes.” Carter wrote down her address. A veteran of the hotel/hospitality industry, she’s learned not to be surprised by anything anyone tells her, and as she talked to the Bryants, she was gauging how committed each seemed to making the new arrangement work.

    There were some applicants late last year who just wanted a ride home for the holidays, she said. One man was only interested in attending a funeral out of town.

    And sometimes those on the receiving end aren’t fully aware of what they’re getting into. “Most people don’t understand that homelessness is not about having four walls and a roof,” Carter said. “It’s about having a support system.”

    First impressions matter, too. Carter has two bookshelves in her office filled with donated clothes to give to the travelers so they can look nice when they arrive.

    Carter asked Bryant a series of questions. How long have you been homeless? What brought you to San Diego? Have you been diagnosed with a mental illness? Are you taking your medication?

    Bryant described herself as bipolar. She said she handles it by keeping to herself. She smiled at the memory of coming here with her boyfriend: “I’d never been to California. I closed my eyes and put my finger on a map. San Diego was the city under my finger when I opened my eyes.”

    Now she was on the verge of going home. But unpredictability comes with the homeless, and at the last minute she decided she had things to take care of here. One week went by, then another. Carter kept in touch with Bryant and her daughter, and finally, on Thursday, it seemed like it would finally happen.

    But Bryant didn’t show up for the bus ride. Carter drove around downtown looking for her, to no avail.

    “Things happen,” she said. “For some people this is a hard step to take — literally the first step out of homelessness.”

    Keeping track

    The Guardian newspaper recently did an 18-month investigation of homeless relocation programs, analyzing more than 21,000 trips taken in the past six years from 16 cities or counties in the U.S., most of them in the West. (San Diego was not one of the regions studied.)

    It found that some of the journeys are successful. “Returning to places they previously lived, many rediscover old support networks, finding a safe place to sleep, caring friends or family, and the stepping stones that lead, eventually, to their own home,” the report said.

    It also concluded that authorities do little to find out what happens after the homeless leave town. In San Francisco, for example, from 2010 to 2015, only three travelers were contacted after they left.

    Jeff Weinberger, co-founder of a homelessness coalition in Florida, which has at least four cities with relocation programs, told the Guardian that they are a “smoke-and-mirrors ruse tantamount to shifting around the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than reducing homelessness.”

    In San Diego, officials said they check in with travelers three months and six months after they’ve left, and they’ll begin doing one-year follow-ups this summer.

    But they said keeping track can be difficult. Many of the homeless don’t have cellphones, and even though they’re asked to provide phone numbers once they get to their destinations, not all do. Some move out almost as soon as they arrive.

    Carter said the program “Facebook stalks” the travelers if need be, although not all of them are on social media.

    The result: Of the 417 people bused out of San Diego during the last six months of 2017, the program was able to stay in contact with 214 of them after they arrived at their destinations. Eighty percent of those were still housed.

    “Almost half they can’t get in touch with, and I think a significant number of them probably wind up homeless again in another city,” McConnell said. “That’s a big caution for these kinds of programs. They need more than just family on the other end. If they have substance-abuse problems or mental health issues, they need connections to help, too.”

    Sometimes those who leave come back, although that is rare, according to program officials. They’ve counted 12 — and 10 of them were in the same family. They’ve since been moved into permanent housing.

    $492.50 per person

    Current funding for the relocation program comes mostly from the San Diego Housing Commission, which might seem an odd fit. How do bus rides qualify as housing?

    One area of the commission’s “Homelessness Action Plan,”adopted in 2017, is aimed at prevention and shelter diversion, and as part of that it approved spending $144,000 on the bus program.

    The money was to fund trips for 400 people from June 1, 2017, through May 31, 2018. But that number was reached by the end of December, so in January the commission voted to allocate an additional $250,000.

    Now the goal is to cover bus trips for a minimum of 800 people through June 30.

    The money comes from $1 million in city of San Diego general funds, and commission officials see it as well spent. It’s not hard to understand why.

    If the Family Reunification Program meets its goal of assisting 800 people at a cost of $394,000, that works out to $492.50 per person — far cheaper than it would be to shelter the homeless in temporary tents or move them into apartments.

    The commission also gets to count the travelers toward meeting its goal of providing “housing opportunities” for 1,450 people through homelessness prevention and shelter diversion over the next three fiscal years.

    Critics say it’s misleading to count bus trips as housing opportunities, but San Diego isn’t the only place where that happens. In San Francisco, half of the people that officials there claim to have helped out of homelessness from 2013 to 2016 were given one-way rides to other cities, the Guardian found.

    However they’re counted, those who have had positive outcomes seem grateful for the program’s help.

    “It was a life-changer for us,” said Vana Wilson, who had been homeless in San Diego with her husband, Kevin, and their three kids for four years.

    Their free, all-night bus ride took them last month to Phoenix to move in with Kevin’s brother. Two days after arriving, Kevin got a job doing construction and maintenance at an apartment complex, his wife said, and the family moved into a unit there.

    “If we were still in San Diego,” Vana Wilson said, “we wouldn’t have this chance to succeed.”

    Last edited by JohnDoe2; 03-11-2018 at 07:09 PM.

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