An investigative report by the Guardian studied homeless relocation plans from major cities and counties across the US. Released in December, 2017, the 18-month investigation recorded 34,240 journeys made by homeless people who participated in a variety of city and county relocation programs between 2011-2017. Relocation programs provide people who are homeless with free one-way bus- or plane- tickets out of a given city.
“Some of these journeys provide a route out of homelessness,” according to the Guardian’s in-depth report. However, “That is far from the whole story.” While programs’ stated goals are to help people, the Guardian noted how relocation schemes “also serve the interests of cities, which view free bus tickets as a cheap and effective way of cutting their homeless populations.”
According to the report, “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.”
Most of the people who participated in the relocation programs learned about them through word-of-mouth or from a caseworker. An applicant must provide a contact of a friend or relative that they know in the city to which they intended to travel. However, programs that were investigated did not routinely confirm whether that contact could actually provide shelter assistance to the program participant. Programs were also found to rarely check-in with travelers after they had left their original cities.
In Florida, for example, three cities recorded data on the relationship between the relocated person and their contact in the new city. On average, a relocated person was most likely to stay with their immediate family. The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, a relocation program in Key West, Florida, requires that applicants sign a contract agreeing that their relocation is permanent. The program denies homeless assistance to people that return after taking a free bus ticket from Key West. This program, the Guardian noted, did not maintain records of the more than 350 people who had left Key West through its relocation services.
The majority (88%) of bussed homeless people were moved to cities with lower median incomes. Cities with a lower median income promise a lower cost of living and potentially affordable housing.
The Guardian analyzed data from 2010-2017 that was provided by homeless relocation programs from 16 major cities and counties across the US. The majority of these were in California, including programs based in Humboldt County, and the cities of Chico, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. The study included data from four cities in Florida: Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Sarasota, and Key West. New York, Phoenix, Portland, Denver, Reno, and Salt Lake City also provided data. From these 16 cities, the Guardian recorded that more than 20,000 homeless people had traveled around the United States as part of homeless relocation programs during the study period.
Data received from San Francisco revealed the enormous statistical impact of that city’s homeless relocation program. In 2005, the city’s homeless population was 6,250, with no travelers bussed out of the city. In 2017, the homeless population was 7,500 with a total of 10,570 homeless people bussed out of the city over the intervening twelve years. The Guardian calculated that without the homeless relocation program, there would have been 18,070 homeless people in San Francisco in 2017. The Guardian noted that these figures did not include homeless people who traveled to or from the city independently of a relocation program, people who became homeless while living in San Francisco, or homeless people who might have found a home during the twelve-year period. From 2010-2015, only three travelers were contacted after relocation. In 2016, a majority of people were contacted, but city officials refused to provide the Guardian with information about those individuals’ current housing status. A homeless person costs the city of San Francisco an average of $80,000 a year, including policing and medical fees.
Portland and Santa Monica were in the minority of cities whose housing programs checked in with homeless migrants. According to Portland officials, 70% of its 416 relocated persons still had housing in their new cities after three months. In Santa Monica, 60% were still housed six months after relocating. However, there was no additional data to check if this housing was designed to be permanent or lasted longer than 3-6 months.
Regardless of limited evidence of whether relocation programs actually achieve their long-term goals, cities use data from them as evidence of aid provided to the homeless population. In San Francisco, the Guardian found that approximately half of the 7,000-homeless people the city has claimed to help were only given bus tickets.
Relocation organizations’ names—such as “Homeward Bound” and “Family Reunification”—can be misleading. Although relocation programs are often marketed as bringing families back together, very few programs ever confirm if a traveler’s standard of living has improved after moving.
The Guardian published its investigation in December, 2017. Its report was covered in detail by Democracy Now! It was mentioned in passing by the Los Angeles Times, and featured in a four-minute segment on NBC News. Major broadcast news outlets including Fox News and NPR, have mentioned housing relocation, but often without the kind of systemic, critical perspective taken by the Guardian in its study. The issue remains largely ignored by the New York Times, USA Today, and the Washington Post.
Alastair Gee, Julia Carrie Wong, Paul Lewis, Sambamurthy, Charlotte Simmonds, et al., “Bussed Out: How America Moves Thousands of Homeless People around the Country,” The Guardian, December 20, 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/dec/20/bussed-out-america-moves-homeless-people-country-study.
Alastair Gee, “America’s Homeless Population Rises for the First Time since the Great Recession,” The Guardian, December 6, 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/05/america-homeless-population-2017-official-count-crisis.
Student Researcher: Izzy Snow (College of Marin)
Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)