Over the past five years, a downtown-based nonprofit has bused more than 1,000 homeless people out of San Diego in hopes of reuniting them with friends and family.
The Family Reunification Program — established in 2012 by the Downtown San Diego Partnership — gives homeless in downtown a free Greyhound bus ticket to anywhere in the nation if they can prove someone on the receiving end is willing to support them.
Yet, with little data showing how individuals fare once reaching their destinations, homeless advocates are concerned about the program’s value.
“Reunifying someone with friends or family doesn’t necessarily solve their homelessness, especially if that friend or family member is on the fringe of poverty themselves,” said Michael McConnell, an advocate and former vice president of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. “Is there three-, six-, 12-month tracking where you’re looking at if that person’s stable?”
Angela Wells, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, said the group’s staff knows the program isn’t an “end all be all solution to homelessness,” but said it has been successful thus far reuniting hundreds of people with their families.
“Everybody needs a support system, and if that means you need to get back to Ohio to get it, so be it,” Wells said.
The partnership was established to support and promote downtown businesses.
The group has spent $168,000 on bus tickets since 2012 — an average of about $160 per person — all funded through a sponsorship with Sharp HealthCare and contributions from the county and San Diego companies.
Homeless people in downtown typically find out about the service by word of mouth or at St. Vincent de Paul Village, an assistance center where a representative from Travelers Aid, a national nonprofit, assesses cases in coordination with the Downtown Partnership.
Physically and mentally able homeless individuals who qualify spend a few hours working with a Downtown Partnership program called Clean and Safe to clean up downtown streets or in the organization’s office in exchange for a ticket. The qualification process is based on self-reporting.
Individuals in need voluntarily fill out questionnaires and give partnership staff contact information for a family member or friend at their desired destination who can verify a willingness to help.
Wells said individuals who receive tickets are asked to call the Downtown Partnership to verify they have arrived safely. Homeless outreach coordinators then reach out again to the traveler three months later to see how well he or she has adjusted.
The coordinators acknowledged the ability to get in contact with individuals varies on a case-by-case basis.
One participant, veteran Tony Davis, was homeless in downtown San Diego for four months before returning home to Richmond, Virginia, through the program.
Like many others, according to Downtown Partnership staff, Davis traveled to San Diego to start over in a new city only to realize how difficult it is to find affordable housing. After returning to Virginia to live with his now wife, he said he hadn’t heard from Downtown Partnership or Travelers Aid staff.
In response to concerns about tracking individuals’ progress, Travelers Aid San Diego President Kathleen Baldwin said there’s only so much they can do.
“A lot of the client base, just because of their circumstances, are transient by nature,” Baldwin said. “Once they’ve left the San Diego area, sometimes it’s possible to reach them again and sometimes it isn’t.”
San Diego’s Family Reunification Program is one of several similar programs across the country offering free bus passes to the homeless. It’s not possible to determine how many homeless residents have been given tickets to San Diego because such numbers are not compiled nationally.