San Francisco Sending Homeless People Anywhere But Here

Homeward Bound programs for homeless people

San Francisco’s Homeward Bound program offers bus tickets for homeless people, but with no tracking of where they end up. Critics question its effectiveness, suggesting it’s about appearance, not aiding the unhoused population.

Outsourcing Our Own With No Care Where They End Up

San Francisco’s Homeward Bound program has been providing homeless people with bus, train, and plane tickets to reunite with friends or family members in other parts of the country since 2005. However, since restructuring the program in 2022, all efforts to determine where people end up when they’re sent away have been stopped, and there is no explanation as to why.

While the program is set to resume tracking in July due to a new bill that expands the program, this stretch of no follow-up betrays the underlying belief that what happens to unhoused people doesn’t really matter as long as they’re out of sight, out of mind, and out of the data.

The Big Busing Brouhaha

Within the state of California, and to a lesser extent the rest of the country, the question of who is busing homeless people where gets a lot of airtime.

Some say that other states are giving their unhoused residents free bus tickets to California with promises of better weather, better social services, and better prospects all around. Others say that California sends its own homeless residents to other states to keep its numbers down.

Still, others say that both things may be accurate, but California is only returning people to the places they came from in the first place after discovering that programs and services aren’t all they’re cracked up to be in the Golden State. Perspectives differ wildly, and politicians discussing this topic can quickly become akin to the meme of all the Spidermans standing around and pointing at each other.

In truth, many states send homeless people from their states to California and other states. But even so, most people who are homeless in California are locals who lived there before losing their housing.

California does send homeless people out of state as well, but it’s not like California is the source of all homeless people. Wherever you are, most of your unhoused neighbors are from there, too.

Homeward Bound?

That said, there are certainly plenty of individual cases where a person who’s lost their housing in one area decides to strike out somewhere new, hoping for better opportunities. For these people, it could be helpful to have a way of getting back to their hometown if the grass proves not to be any greener in the new location. These are just the individuals and families the Homeward Bound program is designed to assist. But does it work?

To be eligible for the Homeward Bound program, you need enough medical stability to make the journey and the contact information of a friend or family member in another location who would be willing to let the person stay with them. You don’t have to be returning to your hometown or even to a state you’ve lived in before. You just need someone to tell a caseworker that they’re willing and able to take you in when you arrive at your destination.

As anyone who’s ever had a roommate can predict, this is not a guaranteed recipe for happily housed ever after. Many people first lose their housing when staying with a friend or family member; the arrangement eventually falls through, and they’re out on the streets.

This pattern may repeat several times in a person’s life and may even be why they’re now seeking transportation to another location. The reality is that if most people who are homeless right now had access to stable housing with a friend or family member, they wouldn’t have become homeless in the first place.

This puts the whole premise of the Homeward Bound program on a shaky foundation. It might buy you some time inside, which isn’t nothing. But if your housing arrangements turn out to be unsustainable for any number of reasons, you may be starting from scratch in an all-new place again.

Anywhere But Here

To some observers, the lack of record-keeping betrays the program’s underlying intentions. Sure, it’s branded as a humane way to transport people to a better life. But if there’s no follow-up to ensure that’s what really happens, that can’t be the true aim.

In our current culture, where statistics and data are everything and “what gets measured gets done,” this lack of curiosity about the program’s effectiveness is telling. Specifically, it tells us that what happens to people after they leave San Francisco doesn’t really matter to those running this program. The important part is that they’re not here anymore.

This makes clear what advocates and unhoused people have known all along—transporting people out of state was never about their own well-being. It was just another way of “cleaning up the streets and getting people to go anywhere but here.

The thin veneer of hand-wringing concern made it seem politically palatable but didn’t change the fundamental motivation. Homeward Bound programs are more useful for the city that wants to seem like it’s effectively handling homelessness than the actual homeless people it’s supposed to help.

A cursory verification that someone, somewhere, is willing to say they’ll open their doors to someone is not enough to guarantee that person or family sustained stable housing. A voluntary shared housing arrangement like this provides them with no legal protection. They’re relying only on the continued goodwill of their host.

It’s nonsensical to give people a bus ticket and assume that everything went fine for them from then on with absolutely zero follow-up verification. But that’s what we’re doing.

As soon as a person is issued their ticket, they’re moved on paper from the “currently homeless” category to the “exited homelessness” category, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth for many. We’ll never know how many, though, because we don’t want to know. That would make the numbers look bad.

Kayla Robbins

Kayla Robbins


Kayla Robbins is a freelance writer who works with big-hearted brands and businesses. When she's not working, she enjoys knitting socks, rolling d20s, and binging episodes of The Great British Bake Off.

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