Can bus tickets cure homelessness?

Bus tickets: Often a symbol of affordable and safe passage home, they have become an issue of controversy among homeless advocates. Many communities are criticized for using bus tickets simply to send their homeless residents somewhere else.

“The record shows that while bus programs may help those limited numbers of folks who have bona fide prospects to improve their lives in other locales, many homeless folk just wind up on the streets at their destination city or return to the city that they departed,” said Jeff Weinberger, co-founder of the Florida Homelessness Action Coalition and October 22nd Alliance to End Homelessness in Broward County, Florida, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

“The schemes also serve the interests of cities, which view free bus tickets as a cheap and effective way of cutting their homeless populations,” reported The Guardian newspaper of London after a 2017 investigation of homelessness in the U.S.

“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,” The Guardian stated.

In San Francisco, The Guardian noted, “Once the cost of policing and medical services is taken into account, each chronically homeless person is estimated to cost the city $80,000 annually. But tickets cost a few hundred dollars.”

“The majority of people experiencing homelessness each year were previously housed in the same city they are experiencing homelessness in,” Jennifer Friedenbach told Bus & Motorcoach News. Freidenbach is executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco.

For some people, she said, bus tickets “can be a very helpful service, because sometimes folks will travel somewhere for a job that didn’t pan out, or to live with relatives who were not, in the end, able to house them.

“That said, (busing) should never be utilized under duress or in violation of basic human rights. Any bus ticket program must be voluntary and handled with care,” Friedenbach said.

The numbers

On a typical night in 2018, there were 552,830 people sleeping in homeless shelters or on the streets in the U.S., according to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress produced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Half of those people were living in five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Washington. Over the course of the year, 950,497 people were housed in an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program.


“Homelessness obviously exists all over the country, and in urban markets we tend to see greater numbers, especially along the West Coast,” said Lauren McGowan, senior director of Ending Homelessness and Poverty for the United Way of King County, Washington.

“Seattle-King County is a community that many people come to for great jobs, great schools and great overall culture. For many people our region is moving and there are incredible jobs, but the lowest-income people are really struggling,” McGowan said. “Many of them are working multiple jobs and are just not able to keep up with the high cost of living.”

Advocates believe bus tickets are helpful for a small portion of homeless populations.

“San Francisco has given over 12,000 bus tickets to homeless people over the past few decades. While this seems like a lot, it is a small subset of the population who are in need of this service—600 to 800 a year out of the 21,000 or so who experience homelessness each year,” Friedenbach said.

The United Way of King County funded tickets for 116 homeless people in 2018, McGowan said. “Occasionally—and I stress occasionally—there are folks who benefit from being relocated when we knew there was somebody on the other end who was going to be able to support them.”

Travel, she said, “shouldn’t be used as a tool to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in any one region.”

Million-dollar plans

In November two New York state senators announced plans to investigate a New York City program that has sent 12,000 people over the past two years to other cities in upstate New York counties or other states.

New York City has spent $90 million on its “Special One Time Assistance Program” that provides only travel expenses and a year of rent for housing. The city has not notified the destinations where the homeless have been sent and have violated state law by shifting the expenses of social services to them, the senators say.

New York City also has sent significant numbers of homeless people to New Jersey and North Carolina.

“There’s a difference between getting rid of a problem and dumping people or really being thoughtful and sensitive and trying to help them,” said Mecklenburg County Commissioner Pat Cotham in an interview with WCNC-TV in Charlotte.

King County Councilman Reagan Dunn has proposed a $1 million plan to reduce Seattle’s homeless population—about 11,000 people—by offering bus tickets for rides home.

Dunn said surveys have shown that nine percent of the King County’s homeless population said “family reunification” would help them return to permanent housing. At that rate, Dunn said, his plan would help 1,000 people reconnect with families.

Weinberger, of Broward County, said the administrators of many programs do not assure that better opportunities await at the end of the bus rides. “Can we say the cities offering these programs really care when they don’t track what happens to these folks they send away? Until we address the root causes of homelessness, like the federal government’s 50-year abdication of responsibility for decently housing people, we’re not being serious.”


Average Nightly Homeless Populations by State, 2018

  • California                    129,972
  • New York                   91,897
  • Florida                         31,030
  • Texas                           25,310
  • Washington                 22,304
  • Massachusetts             20,068
  • Oregon                         14,476
  • Pennsylvania               13,512
  • Colorado                     10,857
  • Illinois                         10,643
  • Ohio                            10,249

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