Portland wants to give homeless people a free bus ticket out of town
Some people believe that wider use of buses should supplement and maybe even supplant subways because buses are less expensive to operate and more flexible than rail.
Now another city is experimenting with the idea that buses could help alleviate homelessness.
In this file photo, pedestrians walk past two homeless men sleeping at a bus stop on Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washigton Post)
Portland, Ore.’s City Council has approved a new initiative that would give homeless people bus tickets to leave town, provided they also head to a destination where family, a job or another sort of support network is already in place for them, according to a report in The Portland Mercury. It could cost the city up to $195,000 a year to relocate about 500 homeless people.
Besides opening the city to the accusation that it’s engaging in “homeless dumping,” the program has created controversy by considering the use of fingerprints or other “biometric” data to track people who participate in the program –not exactly the sort of thing you’d expect of a city that has become almost synonymous for touchy-feely, progressive culture.
What’s more, the entire initiative came about more or less on the QT, the Portland Mercury says.
But the paper, citing advocates for the homeless in its Wednesday report, also says the initiative appears to be well-intentioned and not a bid to pawn off homeless people to other cities around the country. It’s modeled after San Francisco’s Homeward Bound program. Other locales that have adopted this strategy include Oklahoma City, New York City, San Diego and even Hawaii, according to a story published last July by the International Business Times. The New York Times found that more than 550 families had been given free fare to travel to such farflung places such as Paris and Johannesburg in a two-year period during former mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration.
“There’s a difference between a legitimate program and something that’s trying to get rid of a problem by sending people away without those resources,” Giselle Routhier, who is policy director for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York, said in an interview late Thursday. In Gotham, the majority of homeless have ties to New York, and the program appears to be used in a limited way, she said. “To use it as an across the board solution to homelessness doesn’t make sense,” Routhier said.
[From the archives: People who ride the bus or Metro because they have no other shelter]
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has made alleviating homelessness a top priority in her administration. Last month, she announced the addresses of seven proposed family shelters as part of $40-million program to close the troubled homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital and create a network of smaller and more manageable shelters in the city.
The District’s Department of Human Services uses relocation assistance as a strategy to avoid staying in shelters, spokeswoman Dora Taylor said Friday. But she said she would need to check further to find out to what extent the city pays for people to travel elsewhere.
“We do try to divert families away from the shelters as much as possible,” Taylor said. “But it’s not intended to dump the problem or issue on someone else. It’s about stabilizing the family.”
Portland’s program — called the Reunification/Transportation Services Program — is voluntary. It offers either a bus or plane ticket to homeless people who also demonstrate that they have someplace to stay at the new destination, friends or family in place willing to pick them up there, and that they are in good health to travel.
Portland Housing Bureau director Kurt Creager told the Portland Mercury that the aim is to “make some money available to folks who have some connection to another community but are out here, stuck.”
The paper says the $30,000 is expected to last about three months and that city officials are considering approving as much as $195,000 in the next fiscal year, beginning in July, to send 500 people to other cities. A city document posted by the newspaper says the program follows the lead of San Francisco’s Homeward Bound program, which spent about $180 per person to provide travel assistance to 870 people between 2006-2014; fewer than 24 have returned to the city’s streets.
As for the finger-printing, the newspaper says the idea of keeping track is to make sure people don’t “double dip” or otherwise scam the city for a free ride. But it’s not clear yet that this will be included in the initiative.
Tripping sent an email off to the press secretary for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales late Thursday and she suggested we speak with the commissioner who oversees the housing bureau there. We haven’t yet heard back. We’ll update you when we do.
[A hidden world: life for homeless families in Washington, D.C. motels]
Portland’s approach seems reasonable, especially if the program is genuinely trying to return people to a community that can help get them on their feet – and the methods of trying to make sure people don’t abuse the program are humane and not too intrusive. The concept harks back Travelers Aid, an organization that’s helped stranded travelers since 1851.
But the thing is, many of those people going West when the country was young found themselves stuck only because their form of transportation broke down — not their entire lives, often because of substance abuse, mental illness or other ingrained problems. The bigger question here is whether this is truly helping the homeless or putting them on the road because we don’t want to see them in the street.
Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, said he wouldn’t comment on a specific city program and wouldn’t say such an approach can’t work. But he expressed caution about such initiatives.
“For me, the main thing I’d really want to make sure is it’s really based on choice,” Doherty said in an interview. Otherwise, people might be nudged onto the road because there aren’t adequate resources to help them where they are.
Further, he said he’s not aware of any studies that have been done to assess their effectiveness. So there’s no telling if they really help their intended beneficiaries.
“I worry we’re relocating people’s challenges,” he said. “If the opportunity at the other end of this intervention isn’t going to be stable and successful, they’re going to return to homelessness.”
Fredrick Kunkle runs the Tripping blog, writing about the experience of travel. Freddy’s also covered politics, courts, police, and local government. Before coming to The Washington Post, he worked for the Star-Ledger and The Bergen Record.