Destination Nowhere: How American Cities Are Shuffling Thousands of Homeless Around the U.S. Each Year

It’s one of America’s dirty little secrets. Each year, thousands of homeless people are given one-way tickets from one city to the next with little consideration as to where they’re going, who they’ll meet, or what will eventually become of them.

These homeless relocation programs have been going on for three decades, beginning in the City of New York in 1987. But they’ve received relatively little scrutiny, given their enormous social and economic impact.

No longer. The Guardian just concluded an 18-month investigation of the phenomenon. It used public records requests to obtain data from 16 cities and counties that hand out one-way tickets, allowing them to track the origins and destinations of some 20,000 homeless individuals.

It’s not all bad, the paper found. In some cases, individuals were reunited with family or given new opportunities to make a fresh start. Far too often, however, indigent people were sent to new and unfamiliar lands -- sometimes outside of the mainland U.S. -- where their difficulties could become ‘someone else’s problem.’

“We feel like animals,” said one homeless man who was relocated from New York to Puerto Rico. “Like they put us in a garbage bag and put us to the side on the street.”

New York is still the number one offender by far. But its example is being followed by a growing number of cities all across the U.S.

One of them is San Francisco. It launched its homeless relocation program in 2005, modeled on that of Sacramento. The Guardian attempted to track the people being bussed out of the Bay, but kept hitting a wall thanks to a lack of data.

“Our record-keeping, as you discovered, has not always been that great,” acknowledged Randy Quezada, Communications and Community Relations Manager for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.

San Francisco, of course, is a recipient of these bussed-out individuals too. But far more are being bussed out of the city than in. It makes a difference. The Guardian estimates that, without its bussing program, San Francisco would have a homeless population of 18,070 rather than its current figure of 7,600.

In addition to the impacts on the ground, homeless relocation programs are fudging the statistics as well. In San Francisco, people bussed out to other cities are counted as “exiting homelessness” in official stats. It provides a misleading snapshot of the problem of homelessness in America, making it even harder for officials to solve it, critics say.

Curious where America’s bussed out homeless are going? Read the full report here



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