Family Reunification Program in San Diego pays for one-way, one-time bus tickets so homeless people can live with relatives or friends in other cities. It’s relocated 1,700 people in six years.
* Critics call these efforts “Greyhound therapy” and say all they do is move the homeless from one place to another. Officials acknowledge it is hard to keep track of the travelers once they leave.
* The San Diego Housing Commission considers it a success and recently more than doubled its grant to the program, which is run by the Downtown San Diego Partnership.
* Several homeless people who used the program say it changed their lives.
From all appearances, Judy Bryant wanted out of San Diego.
For six years, the 48-year-old woman has been homeless here, and when she walked into an office at St. Vincent de Paul Village on a recent morning, she said she’s had enough of sleeping on concrete. She spent the previous night on the back steps of a downtown apartment building.
Her daughter back home in North Carolina has a place for Bryant to stay if she can figure out how to get there.
That’s where the Family Reunification Program comes in.
Run by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, it provides free bus tickets for homeless people to go live with relatives in other cities. If Bryant’s story checks out, she could be on board that night and back in North Carolina in three days.
“It’s a way for people to re-connect with their family support systems and start over,” said Alonso Vivas, executive director of the partnership’s Clean & Safe team, which runs the program.
Critics call relocation efforts like this “Greyhound therapy” and say all they do is shuffle the homeless from one place to another. But the programs, cheaper than providing housing, are popular in cities all across America, and the one in San Diego is expanding.
After sending about 1,100 people to other places from early 2012 through mid- 2017, it’s bused out almost 600 in the last eight months.
Part of the surge comes from aggressive outreach by the program. It dispatches a worker in a golf cart on weekdays to look for potential travelers. It recruits in temporary shelters. It gets referrals from the police and homeless-assistance agencies.
Some observers said the increase may also be due to law enforcement sweeps in the downtown area that are making it harder for the unsheltered homeless there — 1,276 people, according to a count last year — to pitch tents on sidewalks and sleep in doorways.
“Will people be more susceptible to using the program because they feel like there are no other options here?” asked Michael McConnell, former vice chairman of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “That’s my fear, and I’m not so sure the city would care.”
Program officials said caring is central to what they do. They point to success stories involving disabled veterans, domestic violence survivors and the mentally ill, all off to what they hope are better futures in almost every state in the country.
Among them was Angelo Doyle, 42, who came to San Diego from Memphis, Tenn., last year, “trying to start a new life.” He moved in with a cousin. “I thought he was paying his bills and he wasn’t,” Doyle said in a phone interview. “We got evicted. It was horrifying.”
Blind, with no other family or friends here to contact, he reached out to various agencies for housing but “nobody could help me as fast as I needed,” he said. Then he heard about the Family Reunification Program. Outreach coordinator Latara Hamilton put him on a bus back to Tennessee.
“She saved my life,” Doyle said.
On a recent weekday morning, Jill Kernes steered a golf cart along the streets of downtown San Diego. She was looking for people she refers to not as homeless, but as “housing challenged.”
Kernes is an outreach coordinator for the Family Reunification Program. She’s been doing the job for about nine months, after a 10-year career as a sheriff’s deputy ended. A tussle with an inmate at Las Colinas jail left her with a broken shooting wrist and a medical retirement.
She sees outreach work as a calling. “These people spend their days feeling invisible,” she said. “I see them. They are totally visible to me.”
Her approach is all carrot, no stick. “How you doing, honey?” she said as she approached a woman sitting against the side of a building in East Village. The woman had her belongings in black trash bags. Kernes offered her new socks, which the woman accepted.
Then Kernes asked if she’d heard about the bus program. “Do you have family you’d like to reconnect with? We’ll help you get there, anywhere in the U.S. We’ll pay for the ticket.”
The woman nodded in a vague way. Kernes handed her a program flier but didn’t push further.
“It wasn’t a ‘yes’ and it wasn’t a ‘no,'” she said a few minutes later as she walked back to the golf cart. “It was a ‘maybe.’ I can work with ‘maybe.'”
Almost 40 percent of those who get on a bus hear about the program through the outreach efforts. On a typical day, Kernes interacts with more than 80 homeless people, she said. Some know her by name now.
She knows them by their stories.
Many arrive in San Diego with unrealistic expectations about the job market or the affordability of housing, she said. “They come here for the dream and the first night they get robbed and wind up sleeping in the park.”
The newly homeless have proven the easiest to attract, according to statistics kept by the program. Since last June, almost half of those leaving via buses have been on the streets here for less than six months. One woman had been here only two hours.
The long-term homeless are another matter. Less than 6 percent of the Greyhound riders since last June have been homeless for longer than five years.
“This is their life now,” Kernes said. “They’ve lost track of their families.”
At Horton Plaza, she parked the golf cart, hopped out and said, “Let’s see if there are any lives we can change.” She approached a couple sitting on a bench, surrounded by suitcases. They had a small dog with them.
“Is there family we could connect you with?” Kernes asked. “We’ll send you anywhere in the continental U.S.”
The woman thought for a few seconds. “All dead,” she said.
“All dead,” the man echoed.
The vetting process
It’s a one-way, one-time offer. Those who accept are asked to move quickly.
“This isn’t a travel agency,” said Ketra Carter, lead homeless outreach coordinator. “You can’t come here and say you’d like to schedule something for April. You’re going now.”
Bryant, the homeless woman from North Carolina, seemed ready. She came in to St. Vincent de Paul in East Village a couple of weeks ago and went first to Travelers Aid, the nonprofit that’s been helping the stranded in San Diego for more than a century.
Case manager Shannon Lamoureux checked to make sure Bryant hadn’t gone Greyhound before — a no-go if she had — and then wrote down upcoming departure times for bus rides to Dunn, N.C.
Carter ran a criminal-records check on a database. Registered sex offenders are out. So, too, convicted arsonists. There can’t be any warrants.
Everything came up clean. Carter phoned Bryant’s daughter to confirm she was OK with her mom living there. Sometimes the person on the other end says “no.”
The daughter said “yes.” Carter wrote down her address. A veteran of the hotel/hospitality industry, she’s learned not to be surprised by anything anyone tells her, and as she talked to the Bryants, she was gauging how committed each seemed to making the new arrangement work.
There were some applicants late last year who just wanted a ride home for the holidays, she said. One man was only interested in attending a funeral out of town.
And sometimes those on the receiving end aren’t fully aware of what they’re getting into. “Most people don’t understand that homelessness is not about having four walls and a roof,” Carter said. “It’s about having a support system.”
First impressions matter, too. Carter has two bookshelves in her office filled with donated clothes to give to the travelers so they can look nice when they arrive.
Carter asked Bryant a series of questions. How long have you been homeless? What brought you to San Diego? Have you been diagnosed with a mental illness? Are you taking your medication?
Bryant described herself as bipolar. She said she handles it by keeping to herself. She smiled at the memory of coming here with her boyfriend: “I’d never been to California. I closed my eyes and put my finger on a map. San Diego was the city under my finger when I opened my eyes.”
Now she was on the verge of going home. But unpredictability comes with the homeless, and at the last minute she decided she had things to take care of here. One week went by, then another. Carter kept in touch with Bryant and her daughter, and finally, on Thursday, it seemed like it would finally happen.
But Bryant didn’t show up for the bus ride. Carter drove around downtown looking for her, to no avail.
“Things happen,” she said. “For some people this is a hard step to take — literally the first step out of homelessness.”
The Guardian newspaper recently did an 18-month investigation of homeless relocation programs, analyzing more than 21,000 trips taken in the past six years from 16 cities or counties in the U.S., most of them in the West. (San Diego was not one of the regions studied.)
It found that some of the journeys are successful. “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,” the report said.
It also concluded that authorities do little to find out what happens after the homeless leave town. In San Francisco, for example, from 2010 to 2015, only three travelers were contacted after they left.
Jeff Weinberger, co-founder of a homelessness coalition in Florida, which has at least four cities with relocation programs, told the Guardian that they are a “smoke-and-mirrors ruse tantamount to shifting around the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than reducing homelessness.”
In San Diego, officials said they check in with travelers three months and six months after they’ve left, and they’ll begin doing one-year follow-ups this summer.
But they said keeping track can be difficult. Many of the homeless don’t have cellphones, and even though they’re asked to provide phone numbers once they get to their destinations, not all do. Some move out almost as soon as they arrive.
Carter said the program “Facebook stalks” the travelers if need be, although not all of them are on social media.
The result: Of the 417 people bused out of San Diego during the last six months of 2017, the program was able to stay in contact with 214 of them after they arrived at their destinations. Eighty percent of those were still housed.
“Almost half they can’t get in touch with, and I think a significant number of them probably wind up homeless again in another city,” McConnell said. “That’s a big caution for these kinds of programs. They need more than just family on the other end. If they have substance-abuse problems or mental health issues, they need connections to help, too.”
Sometimes those who leave come back, although that is rare, according to program officials. They’ve counted 12 — and 10 of them were in the same family. They’ve since been moved into permanent housing.
$492.50 per person
Current funding for the relocation program comes mostly from the San Diego Housing Commission, which might seem an odd fit. How do bus rides qualify as housing?
One area of the commission’s “Homelessness Action Plan,” adopted in 2017, is aimed at prevention and shelter diversion, and as part of that it approved spending $144,000 on the bus program.
The money was to fund trips for 400 people from June 1, 2017, through May 31, 2018. But that number was reached by the end of December, so in January the commission voted to allocate an additional $250,000.
Now the goal is to cover bus trips for a minimum of 800 people through June 30.
The money comes from $1 million in city of San Diego general funds, and commission officials see it as well spent. It’s not hard to understand why.
If the Family Reunification Program meets its goal of assisting 800 people at a cost of $394,000, that works out to $492.50 per person — far cheaper than it would be to shelter the homeless in temporary tents or move them into apartments.
The commission also gets to count the travelers toward meeting its goal of providing “housing opportunities” for 1,450 people through homelessness prevention and shelter diversion over the next three fiscal years.
Critics say it’s misleading to count bus trips as housing opportunities, but San Diego isn’t the only place where that happens. In San Francisco, half of the people that officials there claim to have helped out of homelessness from 2013 to 2016 were given one-way rides to other cities, the Guardian found.
However they’re counted, those who have had positive outcomes seem grateful for the program’s help.
“It was a life-changer for us,” said Vana Wilson, who had been homeless in San Diego with her husband, Kevin, and their three kids for four years.
Their free, all-night bus ride took them last month to Phoenix to move in with Kevin’s brother. Two days after arriving, Kevin got a job doing construction and maintenance at an apartment complex, his wife said, and the family moved into a unit there.
“If we were still in San Diego,” Vana Wilson said, “we wouldn’t have this chance to succeed.”
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