A program that gives hundreds of homeless people bus tickets annually to go live with family and friends outside of San Francisco has seen participation plummet since COVID-19 began.
Homeward Bound purchased tickets for just two homeless people per month in April, May and June to ride Greyhound buses to their destination of choice, according to data from the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which administers the program.
Last year in April alone the program paid for 46 tickets and the year before 44, according to the most recent data presented by the department.
In July there was a slight increase to nine, whereas last year in July there were 55.
The drop off is concerning for the department.
The City has relied on the program since 2005 to reduce the homeless population and has set goals to place in permanent supportive housing about as many as they place on buses. Both outcomes are counted as reported “exits” from homelessness.
“Homeward Bound offers the most exits from homelessness of any program in our system of care, last year, the year before and pretty much every year, so this coming down to two a month is heartbreaking,” Abigail Stewart-Kahn, interim director for the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, told the Local Homeless Coordinating Board earlier this month.
“It’s understandable and it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
The drop off is attributable to a number of factors.
Greyhound bus routes have decreased due to the pandemic, city officials said, and social service offices have closed due to coronavirus, forcing the program to go online only.
Emily Cohen, a spokesperson for the department, told the San Francisco Examiner in May that while the program never stopped accepting referrals, the demand for the program was “significantly reduced.”
“We have seen less interest in the program, fewer travel options are available and fewer families are willing/able to receive people during the shelter in place orders/ public health crisis,” Cohen wrote in an email in May.
Jennifer Friedenbach , executive director for the Coalition on Homelessness, told the Examiner that “the program has limited value as most unhoused San Franciscans became homeless as housed SF residents.”
“However, I’m not surprised usage has decreased given that no one seems to be able to figure out how to access the program during COVID — office is closed and phone isn’t answered,” she said.
But The City hopes participation will increase with the reopening of the in-person office at 1235 Mission St., Deborah Bouck, a spokesperson for the department told the Examiner last week.
Bouck said the offices are scheduled to open in early October with a staff of seven. Office hours are Monday through Friday 8:30 am to 4 pm.
“The office will adhere to City guidelines while providing socially distant assistance for people without a phone or internet service, who cannot access the online form,” she said. “Health checks will be conducted with anyone entering the building.”
Greyhound requires all riders to wear face coverings, according to its website.
The fiscal year that ended June 30 saw just 394 homeless sent out of San Francisco though Homeward Bound, according to the data. Meanwhile, 989 were placed in permanent supportive housing.
In fiscal year 2019, there were 562 who were bused out of The City and 1,006 placed in supportive housing.
But the program has experienced an overall decrease in recent years.
In fiscal year 2018, there were 741 homeless who took a Greyhound ticket through the program and rode away, while 1,157 were placed in supportive housing, according to the data.
The program pays for the bus tickets after checking to see if they have friends or family they can move in with upon arrival at their destination. The program has had its critics, who argue it is not solving homelessness but rather moving it around. There is also a lack of data on whether participants remain housed with their family and friends after they arrive to live with them.
The department declined to provide information about the destinations of the 15 who used the program between April and July, citing privacy concerns.
“Homeward Bound conducts follow-up outreach with calls to ensure that people arrive and that their housing is established,” Bouck said. “Homeward Bound plays a critical role in fulfilling the department’s mission to make homelessness rare, brief and one-time.”