Quinn Raber arrived at a San Francisco bus station lugging a canvas bag containing all of his belongings: jeans, socks, underwear, pajamas. It was 1pm on a typically overcast day in August.
An unassuming 27-year-old, Raber seemed worn down: his skin was sun-reddened, he was unshaven, and a hat was pulled over his ruffled blond hair. After showing the driver a one-way ticket purchased for him by the city of San Francisco, he climbed the steps of the Greyhound bus.
He traveled 2,275 miles over three days to reach his destination: Indianapolis.
Cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate elsewhere for at least three decades. In recent years, homeless relocation programs have become more common, sprouting up in new cities across the country and costing the public millions of dollars.
But until now 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 an 18-month investigation, the Guardian has conducted the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs, compiling a database of around 34,240 journeys and analyzing their effect on cities and people.
A count earlier this year found half a million homeless people on one night in America. The problem is most severe in the west, where rates of homelessness are skyrocketing in a number of major cities, and where states like California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have some of the highest rates of per capita homelessness.
These are also the states where homeless relocation programs are concentrated. Using public record laws, the Guardian obtained data from 16 cities and counties that give homeless people free bus tickets to live elsewhere.
The data from these cities has been compiled to build the first comprehensive picture of America’s homeless relocation programs. Over the past six years, the period for which our data is most complete, we are able to track where more than 20,000 homeless people have been sent to and from within the mainland US.
Raber had been feeling sick, tired and depressed in San Francisco, and after three years living on the streets he decided to take his chances in Indianapolis, where he grew up. An old friend had offered him a living room to sleep in and told him there was a possibility of a job as a dishwasher at a nearby fine-dining fish restaurant.
“I’m just going to go back and work,” Raber said, and “save money, and just live”.
The report determined the outcomes of several dozen journeys based on interviews with homeless people who were relocated and 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.
Nan Roman, head of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said bus programs can be a “positive”, although not a panacea, in part because most people are homeless in places they are from.
That is far from the whole story, however.
While the stated goal of San Francisco’s Homeward Bound and similar 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.
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.
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”.
“Once they get you out of their city, they really don’t care what happens to you.”
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. “You meet a lot of people from different countries.” For homeless people like Romines, there was also the added benefit of a mattress at the Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter (Kots).
But the 62-year-old former painter said his life on the island took a turn for the worse about five years ago, after 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, and the shelter offered him a free bus ticket for the 460-mile trip.
He insists he was never told that by agreeing to take that Greyhound bus ticket off of the island, he was also promising never to come back.
Romines said when he took his ticket, he was told he could return to the shelter after six months. But 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. He would have to sleep on the streets.
“I would never have taken the ticket if I had known this would happen,” he said. “They stabbed me in the back is what they did.”
The Southernmost Homeless Assistance League (Shal), a not-for-profit that runs the shelter, 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 upon their return.
Of the 16 cities that shared their data for the report, 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, said his organization also tries to find homeless people work on the island and, where possible, a transition to housing. But he insists the bus relocation program is a valuable service, and said he often receives letters of gratitude.
Most of the people who stay at the shelter are locals, he said, but there are others who come to Key West and discover it is not the tropical paradise they expected.
“Between the heat and the bugs, and the lack of services, and the low wages and the high rents, it is just not a good place to be homeless. It might be one of the worst places in the country to be homeless. The only thing you can say is you’re not going to freeze to death.”
Nonetheless, 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.
“They’re like: well I didn’t think you were serious,” he said. “We’re like: yeah, we’re serious. Some of those gather up their change and leave again. And then we have some that are sleeping on Higgs beach or whatever.”
Miller said that Romines, who was issued his ticket under a previous scheme, is not on the official list of people banned from the shelter. Romines, however, insists he was told he was not permitted to sleep there, and police records show he has been arrested three times for sleeping outside, including on Higgs beach, a strip of sand on the south of the island.
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 – a point echoed by his former deputy, Mike Tolbert, who said it was the only way to prevent the shelter from being used as a “travel agency”.
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. He makes clear that they will not be allowed to come back.
“That, I figured, was the easiest ‘sell’,” Miller said. “Give us money and we’ll ship our homeless problem to somebody else.”
“We feel like animals, like they put us in a garbage bag and put us to the side.”
Two children tumbled out of a cab at New York City’s John F Kennedy airport on a humid evening in July. They enthusiastically helped pull suitcases onto the crowded curb. Their parents looked more subdued; they felt they were being strong-armed by city officials to board a flight to Puerto Rico.
“I really don’t want to go back,” Jose Ortiz, 28, had said hours earlier, standing outside the austere brick building in the Bronx where his family had been given temporary shelter as the city assessed their case, a standard procedure. “They said we could only stay in this apartment for 10 days, after that we might be on the street.”
New York appears to have been the first major city to begin a relocation program for homeless people, back in 1987. After the current iteration of the program was relaunched during the tenure of mayor Michael Bloomberg, it ballooned, and its relocation scheme is now far larger than any other in the nation. The city homelessness department budgets $500,000 for it annually.
Almost half the approximately 34,000 journeys analyzed by the Guardian originate from New York. In contrast with other relocation initiatives, New York is notable for moving large numbers of families, like the Ortizes.
Ortiz and his family did not last long on the mainland. They first moved to Delaware in early 2017 to live with his mother. When that did not work out they packed up and moved to New York, where Ortiz pleaded with the city’s homelessness department for help until he could find a job.
He was told the family was ineligible for services because they had housing options elsewhere, notably in Puerto Rico with his partner’s mother. To officials in New York, steering the family into accommodation instead of the city homeless system was the most sensible option. Ortiz’s decision to take the airline ticket was voluntary, but he did not feel he had much choice given the alternative likely meant sleeping in the park or on a street corner.
“We feel like animals, like they put us in a garbage bag and put us to the side on the street,” he said.
They, like others relocated to Puerto Rico, were being moved from a city with a median household income of $60,741 to an island with one of $19,606, and an unemployment rate twice the national average.
It is a stark example of a pattern that is replicated through most of the journeys, which, analysis shows, have the overall effect of moving homeless people from rich places to poorer places.
There are some obvious reasons why impoverished homeless people might choose to relocate to less-wealthy cities, such as the availability of cheaper housing and a lower cost of living. To some extent the apparent transfer of homeless people from richer to poorer locations is a product of the data: relocation programs are often based in cities with high median incomes such as San Francisco, Santa Monica and West Palm Beach.
However, the repercussions of this trend in the extreme cases bear considering. “The folks who so often fall into homelessness come from communities that have been experiencing a Great Recession for decades, living in neighborhoods with broken or absent support systems, enervated public schools, and little or no economic prospects to lift themselves up beyond their current circumstances,” said Arnold Cohen, president and CEO of The Partnership for the Homeless in New York. “Moving them out to other struggling neighborhoods is just another way of neglecting the root issues that continue to drive the problem.”
Just over a week after arriving in Puerto Rico, Ortiz sent a Facebook message to say that his prospects were looking up: he had an interview for a job as a security guard. In late September, Puerto Rico was struck by Hurricane Maria, devastating the island’s infrastructure and sending its economy into freefall. They haven’t been heard from since.
The underlying assumption of the relocation programs, which have names such as “Homeward Bound” and “Family Reunification”, is that returning to a hometown or relative will lead to a process of rehabilitation. But for some, homelessness is driven by domestic conflicts and broken relationships, issues that may be rooted in the places they are returning to.
For as long as cities have been offering homeless people free tickets to go elsewhere, the programs have attracted controversy. In the run-up to the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, the city was accused of getting rid of homeless people by distributing free tickets for them to leave.
In 2013, the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, a state-run facility, was alleged to have discharged around 1,500 patients, often with little more than their medication and a bus voucher to leave the city. One of the patients killed themselves after their bus journey and another committed a homicide, according to a lawsuit brought by former patients.
While high-profile abuses such as these have attracted headlines, there has been far less attention on whether relocating homeless people makes sense in the first place. Among the cities that provided data for the report, there was an almost total lack of long-term follow-up with the recipients of bus tickets to check whether their relocation had been a success.
San Francisco provided records showing that in the period from 2010 to 2015, only three travelers were contacted once they had left. “Our record-keeping, as you discovered, has not always been that great,” said Randy Quezada, a spokesperson for the city’s homelessness department. Records from 2016 onwards, when different officials ran the program, showed that a majority of people were “contacted” once they reached their destination, but the city declined to share whether they were actually housed, citing privacy concerns.
Smaller schemes had mixed results: Portland found that around 70% of 416 travelers were still housed three months after traveling, and of those leaving Santa Monica, 60% remained housed six months later.
“I think it begs for more research,” said Michelle Flynn, a program director at the shelter that gives out tickets in Salt Lake City. Following up with homeless people who are given tickets in the weeks, months and years after they have left is not a trivial undertaking, especially for shelters that are short-staffed and funded with slim budgets, and when homeless people are by definition hard to trace. “That would probably cost even more than what we’re saving on the actual trips,” said Tom Stagg, an administrator in Santa Cruz.