‘Homeward Bound’ broke rules

A city bus ticket program intended to reunitehomeless people with family and friends to help them get back on their feet has sent a handful of homeless to shelters in other cities, according to documents obtained by The Examiner.

Program officials also appear to have violated their own guidelines in hundreds of cases by not following up to see if the homeless people arrived at their destination or if they are being cared for.

The “Homeward Bound” program, which Mayor Gavin Newsom officially launched in February 2005, is billed as a program to “end the cycle of homelessness” by putting the homeless in touch with “ongoing support” from familiar people, but a review of dozens of pages of program documents raises questions about whether the Department of Human Services is meeting that goal in some instances.

Some preliminary feedback also shows the program is helping get a significant number of people off the street.

The Examiner found nine cases in which homeless people were bused to homeless shelters around the country. In as many as 958 cases out of 1,132, officials did not place a follow-up call a month or six weeks after the trip to determine whether the homeless person was receiving that “ongoing support” in his or her new home. The follow-up is a step listed in the manual that details the procedures for the Homeward Bound program. In some cases, the homeless were bused to people with a seemingly tenuous relationship to them, such as former employers, landlords, ex-girlfriends and roommates.

“For a significant period of time, there was no follow-up on these folks and that's problematic,” said Juan Prada, the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness. Through the sheer volume of people it has bused out of The City, the program has become a major aspect of Mayor Gavin Newsom's homelessness policy. Homeless people are given a bus ticket and a meal during the trip if they contact city homeless services and say they would like to go home. A city official calls ahead to make sure someone — usually an immediate family member — greets the person and agrees to take care of them.

Critics of the program have derided it as “Greyhound therapy” and said The City is pushing its homeless problem onto other counties. Humboldt County sent an angry letter to that effect in January after learning 13 people had been bused to Humboldt without that county’s knowledge.

City officials defended the program, saying it has allowed hundreds of people to reconnect with loved ones, sober up in some cases and return to a normal life. DHS was able to provide status reports on 174 people who had participated in the program, although director Trent Rhorer said the department had followed up on as many as 400. Those numbers are encouraging: More than 144 people remain housed, while only three people have returned to San Francisco, 10 are homeless and three have been incarcerated. The City does not know the whereabouts of 21 people.

Rhorer said Homeward Bound no longer sends homeless people to shelters in other cities and said it began doing follow-up on Homeward Bound clients in November. Rhorer said the number of people using the program combined with a tight DHS budget made it difficult for the department to do follow-ups. He said such calls only began being placed in November 2005.

Overall, Rhorer said the program has had a positive impact on The City's homeless problem.

“The goal of the program is to provide homeless a way to go home. From that perspective, it's been a tremendous success,” Rhorer said. “We've gotten some nice feedback from parents who have got their son or daughter back. When you realize you only spent a couple of hundred bucks on a bus ticket and turned someone's life around, that's amazing.”

jjouvenal@examiner.com

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