For decades, American cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere. In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the States at a cost of millions of dollars. But until recently 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 late 2017, following an 18-month investigation, the Guardian published the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs after compiling a database of 34,000+ people; those who were homeless and relocated, 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.
But that is far from the whole story.
While the stated goal of homeless relocation 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.
The Guardian reported that 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.
“Once they get you out of their city,
they really don’t care what happens to you.”
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”.
The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (Shal), a not-for-profit in Key West, runs a relocation program that 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 should they 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, insists the bus relocation program is a valuable service and that he often receives letters of gratitude.
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.
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.
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.
In his pitch to donors, he makes it clear that recipients will not be allowed to come back.
“Give us the money and we’ll ship our
homeless problem to somebody else.”
“That, I figured, was the easiest ‘sell’,” Miller said.
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. Then life on the island took a turn for the worse. The 62-year-old former painter said 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. Shal offered him a free bus ticket for the 460-mile trip.
Romines insists he was never told that by agreeing to take that Greyhound bus ticket off of the island, he was also promising never to return. 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.
Romines was told that he would have to sleep on the streets.