“Get your ass out of here.”
That’s the title Bilal Ali, a homeless man living at a city shelter, gave to San Francisco’s decade-old program providing free one-way Greyhound bus tickets for the homeless to leave town.
Since February 2005, The City has provided nearly 10,000 homeless residents Greyhound bus tickets — also a $10 per travel day allowance for food — to cities across the United States under Homeward Bound, the bus ticket home program, according to data compiled by the San Francisco Examiner through the Freedom of Information Act.
The total number bused fluctuates each year from a low of 815 to a high of 942. That amounts to an average of more than two homeless people every day that San Francisco ships out via Greyhound.
The numbers are expected to increase. The Human Services Agency, which oversees the program, has recently hired more case managers in an attempt to boost participation.
Add to that stepped up police enforcement with a specialized neighborhood crime unit and a ban of encampments on sidewalks with authority to remove them within 24 hours after offering shelter — two measures that are expected to go before voters in November — and those bus tickets could start looking a lot more appealing to San Francisco’s homeless.
Critics, however, say such efforts are sure to make life without a home more challenging, despite the much-praised caring spirit of a city named after the patron saint of the poor, St. Francis.
Homeless residents and their advocates appreciate the Greyhound service but are critical when city leaders call it a solution to homelessness. They also consider it misleading, if not outright lying, to count homeless people bused out of town as housed — which The City does.
It may also come as a surprise to some that Homeward Bound is considered a primary homeless program for San Francisco; there’s even a city goal to house about half the homeless The City serves and to bus away the other half.
Little is known about what happens to those sent packing beyond an initial confirmation that there’s someone at the other end of the trip to receive and house them. After 30 days, an attempt is made to reconnect with them over the phone, but then they are left alone.
San Francisco isn’t alone when it comes to paying one-way transportation costs of homeless residents, as more cities throughout the U.S. are adopting similar programs. Portland, Ore., became the most recent municipality in May to start buying bus tickets for the homeless. Hawaii flies homeless people off the island as well.
Navigating bus tickets
One of San Francisco’s recent success stories for housing the homeless is the Navigation Center at 1950 Mission St., where the numbers are promising. The City opened a second Navigation Center on Tuesday.
But more than half of those success stories are actually those sent away on the bus. The others touted as success stories are placed in permanent housing.
A recent city report calls into question the use of Navigation Centers for Homeward Bound participants, a decision that was made to boost usage of the program and ensure they actually board the buses. The shelter dedicates five out of 75 beds solely for those participating in the Homeward Bound program.
Between March 2015 — when the first Navigation Center opened — and May 4, 2016, 468 clients have gone through the shelter facility resulting in 142 placed in permanent housing and 168 sent out of town using Homeward Bound, after staying in a bed one day on average.
A City Controller’s evaluation of the Navigation Center in that same period found that while 38 people used Homeward Bound in the first six months, the usage rate later soared, tripling to 130 in the following eight months.
“The Navigation Center has been increasingly used as a brief stopover for Homeward Bound clients,” the report found.
The report questioned whether this was the best use of resources —the cost per bed per day is about $100 — especially when there is no data to suggest clients are better served through Homeward Bound.
The City plans to open five more Navigation Centers during the next two years. The idea is that they serve a homeless population difficult to connect with conventional shelters because of rules like curfews, not allowing pets and having to store belongings.
Those rules don’t exist at Navigation Centers, which are designed to intake residents like those living in encampments, provide immediate services and expedite their placement into housing, such as single room occupancy hotel units.
The key to success is the inventory of housing units. A Navigation Center could house 122 clients annually. Since only one in 10 supportive housing units become available, it would take 1,169 units to make that happen, according to the report, or 22 percent of the total single-adult supportive housing units, 5,205.
Mayor Ed Lee has committed to ending homelessness for 8,000 more residents by the end of his final four-year term in office in 2019. But that doesn’t mean everyone will be housed in San Francisco.
An unknown portion will end up on the Greyhound bus, heading “home” to mothers and fathers, boyfriends and girlfriends, ex-wives and ex-husbands, friends, case managers and the like.
Deirdre Hussey, Lee’s spokesperson, said the mayor “absolutely considers Homeward Bound participants as housing individuals.”
“We consider a person being removed from the street and reunited with a stable, loving family as the best possible outcome,” Hussey said. “This is not shifting the homeless problem to other cities. This is a person being removed from the street and being helped by the people who love them the most — their families.”
Chris Herring, a doctoral candidate of sociology at UC Berkeley who studies homelessness, said The City shouldn’t consider the bus program a solution to housing the homeless.
“I think it would be great if all cities offered free transportation both within and from cities to poor people who cannot afford it, especially to poor people wanting to reconnect with friends and family for any period of housing or respite or a break from the streets,” Herring said. “But we should not fool ourselves that this is housing people.”
A review of the data by the Examiner found that since February 2005, 9,917 people were bused out of town under Homeward Bound. The names of participants are confidential.
Participants may be referred to the program by police officers, Public Works employees and other outreach workers.
The City bused one third of the homeless participants — some 3,123 — to friends. Another 1,945 homeless residents were bused home to their mothers; sisters received 826 homeless people, and fathers received 634.
Bus riders traveled to 49 states since the program began, according to the data. The most popular state destination was California, with 1,969 one-way tickets during the past decade. The other top five destinations include: Texas at 675, Washington at 583, Florida at 536, Oregon at 457 and New York at 423.
Conflating housing homeless people in supportive units and sending them away on a Greyhound “is dishonest,” Herring said.
“We need to call these things two separate things,” he said. “And this should not be used as a policy to boost up numbers or some vision that San Francisco is ending homelessness.”
Homeward Bound will soon be overseen by Jeff Kositsky, the mayor’s tapped director of the new Department of Homelessness. Kositsky called the program “an excellent tool” in helping to house people, noting that “it’s certainly an economical” method.
Since February 2005, The City has spent $1.6 million on Greyhound bus tickets and $244,070 in meals for travelers.
“We have a crisis in San Francisco. We know that the only way to solve it is through housing exits,” Kositsky said. “We’re helping people who wound up homeless and want to reunify with family or friends.”
Kositsky said he has yet to examine the program, but will be reviewing all services for improvements. Still, he said, there are oversight limitations once people leave city limits.
“We’re not going to be able to track everybody forever,” he said. “As far as I know, we’re very careful to make sure somebody is on the other end.”
The program also addresses the housing crisis reality.
“We’re not going to build our way out of the problem,” Kositsky said.
Trent Rhorer, director of the Human Services Agency, defended the program. “There are a lot of ways to leave the street,” he said. “One of those is to go back to your family.”
“Critics can call it ‘Greyhound therapy.’ They can call it whatever the hell they want to call it,” Rhorer continued. “It ain’t. We’re contacting the receiver who is agreeing to take them in.”
Rhorer said the program addresses the reality of housing supply, calling it “unrealistic” to house the thousands using the program. He added, “Why not take advantage of social networks?”
The biggest shortcoming of the bus ticket program may be the lack of data showing whether those who are bused end up homeless soon after arriving in their destination — and if they return to San Francisco.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she finds nothing wrong with providing the bus tickets but is critical of The City beefing up case managers.
“It’s not providing housing for people. It’s just a bus ticket,” Friedenbach said. “Spending that much money on case managers to give people bus tickets, that part is super wasteful.”
She added, “The bus tickets themselves are fine. It’s a nice service for people. The folks who need it appreciate it. [But] it’s certainly not a strategy that should be included as part of ending homelessness.”
The lack of tracking what happens to the bus ticket recipient makes the service especially troubling, Friedenbach emphasized.
“There’s just some phoniness to the idea that this is addressing what most people think of as our homeless problem, when you are basically providing transportation for travelers,” she said.
Ali, the homeless resident, agreed bus tickets aren’t a homeless solution. He said he was staying at the Navigation Center and awaiting a single-room occupancy unit to become available.
“They have beds just for Homeward Bound people. I’ve seen people come and go,” Ali said. “That person goes back home to Chicago. What happens? Did that person get out of being homeless? Did they get a job? Or are they still homeless?”
“They’re still homeless,” Ali said.
The solution, he added, must be based on connecting residents to housing.
“They don’t do the tracking,” he said. “It’s just: ‘Get out of town. We will give you a ticket. Don’t come back.’”
San Francisco is implementing a new protocol that’s meant to provide improved metrics.
Scott Walton, who oversees the Homeward Bound program that will soon come under the new Department of Homelessness, described in an email some adjustments to the program:
Phone follow up to the client and/or the person agreeing to receive the client three times in the first 30 days: 1. At the time the person is expected to arrive at the destination; 2. Two weeks after the arrival date; 3. 30 days after the arrival date.
The City will also begin tracking whether a person returns after being bused out of town by checking within three and six months if the person has shown up in San Francisco’s benefit programs or has used the shelter system.
The City has increased its staffing of the program in the current fiscal year and plans to more aggressively advertise the resource.
“We are also providing presentations and outreach to staff and clients of programs that serve homeless and formerly homeless adults and families, including shelters, homeless resource centers and drop-ins, and supportive housing sites,” Walton wrote in an email.
“In the coming months, we will expand the posted times and locations where interested persons and potential clients can connect with Homeward Bound staff.”
Up until this year, Homeward Bound cost a total of $350,000 annually with three outreach workers and no supervisor. The third staff member was added last year.
Today, the program is more robust with eight outreach workers and one supervisor, which next fiscal year will cost $893,201 in salaries and benefits along with $200,000 in tickets and travel expenses.
The housing answer
Wendy Whimsy has been homeless since 2013, and in August ended up in San Francisco living in the Haight neighborhood. When her father died in her home state of Georgia, she attempted to use Homebound Bound to visit for his funeral. Whimsy was told she could only use it if she planned to stay in Georgia, which she wasn’t willing to do. So she scrounged together the travel money herself.
Still, Whimsy spoke highly of the resource for others who might need it.
“I think it’s a fabulous program. Sometimes things don’t work out here. They might get all their stuff stolen, have no real way to make money, or something terrible might happen and they need to be around family or someone that can be supportive of them,” Whimsy said.
While Whimsy said she might have an opportunity to live with her mother back in Georgia, her mother may lose the home now that her father died.
Besides, Whimsy wouldn’t want to give up the Haight community that has brought her stability in life, such as medical care and therapy at area nonprofits. She spoke fondly of the public library branch there.
Her goal: “I hope to have my seizures under control, then find employment and through the community, find affordable housing.”
Housing in the Haight, to be specific. “I love it here,” Whimsy said.