Mixed results for Portland's homeless bus program
Dillon Hendershot was living in a tent under the Broadway Bridge when he received an $82 bus ticket out of Portland in May 2016.
He was one of the first homeless people to receive a ticket through Portland’s Ticket Home program, which gives bus, plane or train tickets to people who have places to live in other cities.
Hendershot hopped on a Greyhound bus destined for Spokane. Family members promised Ticket Home staff that Hendershot could live with them. But when he got to Spokane, living with family didn’t work out. Now he’s bouncing from friend’s house to friend’s house with no permanent place to sleep.
Hendershot is homeless again, just in a different city. And he’s not the only one. Of the 275 people who have received tickets since Ticket Home launched last year, less than half reported they were still in housing three months later.
Program to bus homeless out of city begins in May 2016
A ticket out of homelessness?
Ticket Home has been touted as a win-win: It offers free travel to homeless people who have a home somewhere else, and reunites them with loved ones while getting them off of Portland’s streets.
Portland has a massive homeless crisis, with more than 3,800 people sleeping outside or in shelters every night. Another 12,000 are doubled up in someone else's home. Homeless camps crowd the downtown core. With Ticket Home, hundreds of homeless people can leave the city each year, freeing up shelter space and services for other people. It’s not the answer to solving Portland’s homeless problem, but it makes a dent.
“I think the program is a success,” said Denis Theriault, spokesman for Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services, which funds the program. “People come to us. They want help. They don’t want to be stuck in Portland. They don’t want to be using our services here. They want to go somewhere else; they want to be with relatives. We are going to make that happen for them.”
The city and county together budgeted $200,000 for the first full year of the program – a small percentage of the joint office’s $44 million budget. Overall, Theriault says, the joint office and its partners placed 4,600 homeless people into permanent housing last year.
Ticket Home is administered by the homeless service agency 211info, which takes the calls then subcontracts with Transition Projects to actually purchase and distribute the tickets. In addition to paying for tickets, the program also gives people a $20 per day stipend and sometimes purchases items such as luggage or clothing.
Between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2016, 275 people received bus, train or plane tickets through Ticket Home. A pilot program in May and June 2016 got $30,000 and gave 53 homeless people tickets out of Portland.
The ticket recipients ended up in cities across the country, from Alaska to New Hampshire. Twelve individuals or families received tickets to other Oregon towns. The most popular destinations by far were in California, with at least 40 people shipped to that state.
Portland is not the first city to bus people out and the city’s been on the receiving end of other bus programs. New York has given homeless people one-way tickets to destinations across the globe. Portland’s program is modeled after San Francisco’s Homeward Bound, which has shipped nearly 10,000 people out of the city since 2005. More than 450 homeless people from San Francisco were sent to Oregon.
Like San Francisco and New York’s programs, Portland’s Ticket Home requires that a homeless person has a place to live, and that program staff call the individual who is providing housing to the homeless person before they give out a ticket. Portland also follows up three months later, something that doesn’t happen in San Francisco or New York.
For many, Ticket Home literally offered a ticket for a better life. One couple who received $400 for gas told Ticket Home staff, “If it wasn’t for your program we never would have made it home.”
A pregnant mother was granted tickets so she, her boyfriend and their three children could move in with her father in Arizona.
“This mother stated that her father had never met any of her children and that her relocation to Phoenix would give him a chance to bond with his grandchildren and to be present for the birth of the new baby,” a staff member wrote. “The warm thanks and genuine hugs received from clients has affirmed that this program is a blessing to people who had given up on ever possibly getting off the streets or seeing family members again.”
But records show not every bus ticket results in a happy reunion.
Ticket Home falls short
Although Ticket Home has a goal to keep 90 percent of the people who receive tickets in stable housing, the program has fallen far short of that goal.
Less than half of the people who received tickets since the official launch reported they were in stable housing three months after they left Portland. A quarter said they were still homeless, and staff couldn’t reach another quarter of the people who got tickets. Nine people never used the tickets they were given. A couple people came back to Portland.
Out of 266 people who used their tickets, 131 said they were still in stable housing three months later. That means 135 people are either homeless or were unaccounted for and may now be homeless again, just in a different city.
Housing 131 homeless people just by giving them bus, train or plane tickets isn’t insignificant, and it’s a far cheaper solution per-person than many of the city’s other housing and shelter programs.
Theriault admits the percentage is less than optimal but the population Ticket Home serves comes with some inherent barriers.
Denis Theriault, spokesman for Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services, discusses the Ticket Home program
“Sometimes when you’re calling a relative to help these people, maybe they don’t realize how much work it is to provide a home for people in crisis or who have mental health challenges,” he said. “Three months later, without a case manager, without the level of support you would have if they were in Portland in the system, those outcomes aren’t going to be as good.”
Theriault notes Ticket Home is not the only way homeless people receive free transportation. Nineteen social service agencies in Multnomah County offer rent assistance, and agencies can use rent assistance money to help clients obtain transportation for a ticket out of town. Some private agencies, churches and individuals will also offer bus tickets to homeless people and those recipients aren’t often tracked.
Oregon towns fear Ticket Home impact
Last year, a homeless woman stepped off of a Greyhound bus in The Dalles, a small town an hour and a half east of Portland.
“She didn’t know who sent her. She hardly knew how she got here. She didn’t know why she got here. It took five social agencies to deal with her,” said The Dalles Mayor Stephen Lawrence. “That’s when we started asking questions.”
Stephen Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles, discusses the town's homeless issues and how he believes Ticket Home has impacted The Dalles
Lawrence said The Dalles’ homeless population is growing and the issue got worse last year following Ticket Home’s launch. He says the influx of new homeless people drains city resources, alarms residents and dulls a burgeoning tourism industry.
Lawrence and other city leaders in The Dalles say they have had six homeless people show up from Portland by bus. Records show only one person has received a bus ticket to The Dalles through Ticket Home, and program staff are unable to confirm whether that person is in housing or still homeless. Privacy policies prohibit Ticket Home from releasing names.
“These were people we hadn’t seen. Normally in a town this size, which is about 15,000, you know everybody. I know everybody. The police know everybody. When you have a whole bunch of new faces, you start to wonder what’s going on,” Lawrence said. “This is becoming a real problem. People are showing up, coming from Portland.”
Six new homeless people is not a lot by Portland standards, but the single shelter in The Dalles opens only when temperatures get below freezing. It can sleep 19 people total.
The Dalles is not the only small community worried about Ticket Home. At the 2016 League of Oregon Cities conference, representatives from smaller Oregon cities expressed concern about bus ticket recipients showing up in their communities without anywhere to live. Officials at two of those cities, Oregon City and Astoria, said they have not been able to confirm whether Ticket Home recipients showed up in their towns, but they say their homeless populations are growing.
With or without the Ticket Home program, smaller communities are seeing more homeless people stream in. As Portland’s homeless population bloats, it inevitably pushes people out.
Multnomah County staff members know they can’t house everyone. And solving homelessness through Ticket Home, even for a couple hundred people a year, is nearly impossible. Even with the perfect home, some people won’t stay in housing.
“There’s a point where we can’t control the ultimate outcome,” Theriault said.
He also notes that there may be more people housed than the numbers show, since Ticket Home was unable to reach so many people.
The program is making changes to increase its odds. Ticket Home is implementing a new will-call program for bus and train tickets that keeps the city from paying for unused tickets. A new system helps Ticket Home catch “repeat participants” who take a trip, come back, and want to leave again. They’re also asking for backup phone numbers so they have more ways to check in three months later.
“We want to make this work as well as it can because it really does help a lot of people,” Theriault said.
The future of the program is uncertain. The new county budget is in the works and no one knows yet which programs could be on the chopping block.
As for Hendershot, who is still homeless 10 months after getting his bus ticket, he says he’s better off now than when he was living in Portland. Instead of camping under a bridge, he has friends who let him couch surf.
But he also understands that once people leave Portland, they’re leaving behind a city full of homeless services that could help them find housing or a job.
“People that take buses or trains or whatever and they go out of state to relocate with their families – that’s a lot harder. It is out of Portland’s jurisdiction,” he said. “I mean, if they were in Portland, there would be a lot more help offered.”
Published March 24, 2017