An investigative report by the Guardian studied homeless relocation plans in major cities and counties across the United States. Released in December 2017, the 18-month investigation recorded 34,240 journeys made by homeless people participating in a variety of city and county relocation programs between 2011 and 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. The report notes, however, “That is far from the whole story.” Although the 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 relocated people told the Guardian that they ended up back on the streets, in their new location, “within weeks of their arrival.”
Most of the people who participated in relocation programs learned about them through word of mouth or from a caseworker. In most programs, an applicant must provide the contact information for a friend or relative they know in the city to which they intend 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, only three cities recorded data on the relationship between the relocated person and their contact in the new city. The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League, a relocation program in Key West, Florida, requires that applicants sign a contract stating that their relocation is permanent. The program denies homeless assistance to people who return after taking a free bus from Key West. This program, the Guardian noted, did not maintain records on the more than 350 people who had left Key West through its relocation services.
The Guardian analyzed data from 2010 to 2017 that was provided by homeless relocation programs from 16 major cities and counties across the United States. The majority of these programs were in California, based in Humboldt County and in 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 (OR), Denver, Reno, and Salt Lake City also provided data. From these 16 locations, 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. The majority (88 percent) of bussed homeless people were moved to cities with lower median incomes than their point of origin, to take advantage of a lower cost of living and potentially affordable housing.
Data received from San Francisco revealed the enormous 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 just over 7,600, after a total of 10,570 homeless people had been bussed out of the city in the intervening 12 years. The Guardian calculated that, without the homeless relocation program, there could have been as many as 18,000 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 12-year period. From 2010 to 2015, only three travelers from San Francisco’s program 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 is estimated to cost the city of San Francisco an average of $80,000 per year, based on the cost of policing and medical services.
Portland and Santa Monica were in the minority of cities in which housing programs checked in with homeless migrants. According to Portland officials, 70 percent of the city’s 416 relocated persons still had housing in their new cities after three months. In Santa Monica, 60 percent were still housed six months after relocating. However, there was no additional data to check if this housing was designed to be permanent or if it lasted longer than three to six months.
Regardless of limited evidence on whether relocation programs actually achieve their long-term goals, cities use data from these programs as a demonstration of aid provided to their homeless populations. In San Francisco, though, the Guardian found that approximately half of the 7,000 homeless people the city has claimed to help were given only bus tickets.
Democracy Now! and the PBS NewsHour featured interviews with Alistair Gee, who edited the Guardian story. The Guardian report was also featured in a four-minute segment on NBC Nightly News and was mentioned in passing by the Los Angeles Times as an “amazing investigation.” Major broadcast news outlets, such as Fox News, have mentioned housing relocation, but often without the kind of systemic, critical perspective taken by the Guardian in its study. The issue has remained largely ignored by other major outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today.
Outside in America team, “Bussed Out: How America Moves Its Homeless,” 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)