Beginning in the late 1980s, American cities started trying out a new strategy in dealing with their rising problems regarding homelessness. Well, not really new, because the strategy was actually as old as time: pass the problem on to somebody else.
New York City was the first American city to bus its homeless citizens somewhere else by giving them free one-way tickets. It’s a practice that has ballooned in recent years, with thousands of homeless people relocating every year. And in a new study, The Guardian becomes the first publication to look at the long-term effects the practice has on the people it relocates.
The Guardian was granted access to datasets following thousands of homeless people, and spotlights several specific cases. These anecdotes reveal people who are endlessly grateful to the relocation programs, others who felt betrayed by them, and still more who felt they hadn’t received much of anything from them.
Some recipients of bus tickets credit the relocation with their lives. Homeless shelters understandably asserted that very insistently—several directors of homeless relocation programs pointed to letters of thanks they had received. But these success stories, The Guardian reports, tend to be contingent on the subject having a support network to go home to. One anecdote from the report followed an alcoholic young woman who managed to enter rehab and turn her life around thanks to the help she received from her mother.
Other recipients of the free bus tickets don’t have much of a success story. Instead of a life-changing event, the bus rides for them were a forgettable blip on the radar, as several anecdotes in the report follow people who simply returned to the cities that had just bussed them out. Some cities, like Florida’s Key West, also have policies that prohibit those who accepted a bus ticket from using their homeless services ever again. A homeless man who went back to Key West after taking a bus out of there said his shelter turned him away upon his return.
Of the thousands of cases The Guardian looked at, over half originated from New York City. New York didn’t stop at bussing people out of the state—they also booked flights for some 20 percent of their homeless. Many of those flights went to Puerto Rico, or other areas with far lower median household incomes than New York.
Almost none of the cities did any kind of long-term follow-up with any of the homeless people they relocated, so The Guardian had to piece that data together on their own. This is mainly because the cities that use these relocation programs are primarily interested in them for financial reasons: Each homeless person costs their city tens of thousands of dollars a year, while a bus ticket costs next to nothing in comparison. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg explicitly said one of the reasons he was restarting the program was to ease the burden on the city’s taxpayers. San Francisco’s homeless population would be approximately twice as large as it is now, if not for its bussing program.
Homeless people are sent away from the city after qualifying for the program by merely proving that someone, anyone in the city they’re going to is willing to house them for any amount of time. Because of this, several cases end up with people simply on the streets in a new city, because their living arrangement fell apart or was never feasible to begin with. Some people are sent back to live with acrimonious ex-spouses or re-enter abusive family dynamics, and some are given bus tickets despite having warrants out for their arrest. If nothing else, The Guardian’s report proves these programs do very little in the way of checking that the program is the right fit for the recipient—the main thing they care about is moving the people out of cities.