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: IRE.IRE.IRE Radio.
: If you're walking down the street in San Francisco it's impossible to ignore. On any given night there are nearly 7500 homeless people in the city. And for those who can't find shelter they're sleeping on the streets. It's not hard to find encampments or tents or people bundled up in sleeping bags and blankets to stay warm.
: And these are people who are suffering really horrible conditions. Often they don't have anywhere to wash. They don't have anywhere to use the restroom and so they're forced to use the restroom where they can effectively. So the circumstances are very degrading and very dehumanizing and very very sad.
: For cities like San Francisco that are struggling with their homeless population, it's an overwhelming issue to tackle. But some places have found a cheap solution. One way bus tickets out of town. On this week's episode Alastair Gee and Julia Carrie Wong of The Guardian walk us through their 18 month nationwide investigation. Through their reporting, they created a database that revealed the extent to which cities were abandoning their homeless. For some a bus ticket provided a path out of homelessness and a support system. But for others it just made things worse. Sometimes they ended up right back in the city they left still homeless. The reporters found one city that went as far as banning people who accepted bus tickets from using homeless services like shelters if they ever returned.
: I think bussing has come to be seen as a Band-Aid as a quick fix. I think that helps to explain its prevalence, but of course it's not addressing really the root causes of homelessness which is a rental affordability prices, people struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues.
: I'm Tessa Weinberg and you're listening to the IRE Radio Podcast. It started as a rumor. When The Guardian opened its San Francisco Bureau in 2016, the editors thought their focus would be on technology and the Silicon Valley. But they found one of the major topics that demanded their attention was the thousands of homeless people who sleep on the city streets each night. Alastair Gee is a homelessness editor at The Guardian's San Francisco Bureau and he'd heard rumblings that some cities bussed out there homeless.
: They couldn't quite tell if it's another myth if it's kind of folklore that people say along the lines of homeless people go to various cities. They just go there for the services or whatever or not they go there for the weather, is this really true.
: So they decided to investigate and made the question the focus of a series called Outside in America.
: These programs always get covered by the local news. But what could we bring to the story that would go beyond just saying you know this is happening?
: That's Julia Carrie Wong, a Guardian reporter who is part of the team that worked on the project. To get a better sense of how bussing program started. Julia began by searching through clips and LexisNexis. She found that sifting through old stories helped her trace the history of homelessness in America.
: Most people would date the kind of chronic homelessness that we see today to both the twin shocks of the country kind of shutting down mental institutions and also the massive cuts to HUD funding that came under Reagan and that those twin things kind of helped to create the situation of chronic homelessness that so many US cities have today.
: The idea of bussing away the homeless was sometimes controversial like during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The news that city officials had been sending their homeless to other parts of the South before the games created an uproar. But the first full fledged bussing program Julia and Alastair could pinpoint was in America's largest city.
: And so the first bussing programs that we could find came about in the late 1980s. And the first one that we found was in New York and that's actually today the biggest homeless bussing program in the nation. And then you can see it spreading around the country.
: By the time bussing programs reach San Francisco in 2005, then Mayor Gavin Newsom has started to sanitize the programs working to remove the stigma surrounding them. He reframed the conversation from one of relocation to that of reunification and name the program Homeward Bound. Newsom's idea caught on. Today bussing programs are everywhere from Fort Lauderdale to Salt Lake City and they are especially popular on the West Coast. City officials say bussing is a way to get homeless people back on their feet and it's cost effective too. Instead of paying for a bed in a homeless shelter for months on end cities can shell out a couple hundred dollars for a one-time bus ticket. In some cases relocation programs are privately funded. But in many of the largest cities, they're paid for out of the city budget. Homeless people who hear about the program can apply for a ticket although they can get turned down for a handful of reasons such as having an outstanding arrest warrant. But despite the existence of bussing programs, homelessness has continued to be an issue. A federal study found that in 2017 America's homeless population rose for the first time since the Great Recession. While searching through clips helped Alastair and Julia get a better sense of the history of these programs, it wasn't an exhaustive search.
: It gave us a lot of leads, but we need to just be more methodical as well. So then after that, we just went through a list of the 25 largest US cities in the country, and we just contacted officials in all of those cities to find out if they have programs.
: Once they had a short list of cities with bussing programs they sent out records requests. Going in, they envisioned what their ideal data would look like.
: We knew that what we wanted was individual journey level data. We wanted to know how many journeys someone took on. I don't know. March 23, 2005 for instance. And we wanted to be able to say it was a man or a woman who went from this city to this city and maybe this was how much the city cost, and this was the outcome of that journey.
: But they also wanted to know details like had the city made any follow up calls once a passenger reached their destination. And who was waiting in the new city to meet them? In general they asked for a lot knowing that depending on the city they might not get everything. But wrangling the data they received was a challenge. Cities vary in what kind of data they collected on bussing programs and how they kept it.
: Everybody had a different form of compiling it. Not everybody just gave it to us in a spreadsheet. So there was a number of hours of just converting PDFs into something and then trying to clean that data.
: For instance, in the case of San Francisco there were just a bunch of empty fields where they should have marked down, here's where we did follow-up with this client to ensure that once we've given them a bus ticket out of the city that they were housed at the other end. There were just blank spaces for several thousand people that were taking tickets from the years 2010 to 2015.
: Alastair and a team of reporters had to figure out, was San Francisco keeping information from them or did the city simply not have that data?
: And both cases are interesting right? And so eventually what the city of San Francisco said to us was, "As you've seen, our data keeping hasn't always been very good". So that was fascinating. The very justification for having a bus program is that it works to rehouse people at the end that it creates stability to people. But for this whole five year period, they had zero data to testify to that at all. So that was very interesting.
: All of this pointed to shortcomings in the system. When San Francisco reports how many people have exited homelessness, it includes a number of people who received one way bus tickets. The Guardian found that from 2013 to 2016 nearly half of the 7,000 homeless people the city said it helped lift out of homelessness had been relocated with bus tickets. And yet the city often lack data to show if the tickets had actually helped. From 2010 to 2015, the city's record showed only three people had been contacted for follow up calls after they left.
: That became one of the main focal points of the story. Because if you're going around saying that just sending someone home to a relative is the right solution to homelessness, well not only does that face headwinds when you consider the fact that many people are homeless because of where they came from or because of family conflicts. It's also difficult if you're saying that without having good long-term data to back those statements up.
: The longest follow up they found was Santa Monica which checked in with travelers six months after they were bussed out; only 60 percent remained housed six months later.
: And that was the absolute longest. Many cities didn't do any follow-up at all.
: It became the reporter's goal to essentially do the city's jobs for them and find out what impact bussing programs were having on the homeless people who use them. While San Francisco lacked data , one city, Sarasota, Florida, gave them a trove of it. They supplied The Guardian with dozens of PBS, photocopies of handwritten forms that hopeful travelers had filled out at the local Salvation Army.
: So in that case it was just deciphering handwriting and dealing with what felt like third generation photocopies.
: But despite the extra time it took to examine the forms it was worth it for the additional information they were able to glean. Sarasota was unique in that it required homeless people to provide the name of the person they planned to meet at their destination, their relationship to that person, and their address and phone number.
: So that was the only city where we were able to obtain more about the destination of a person than just the city that they were going to.
: While most people went to stay with family, there were a few instances where that wasn't the case.
: I think that there were two people that were being sent to a bail bondsman. So that's obviously not anything to do with family reunification. That's just getting back in time to meet a court date. And other cases where it was like a former employer.
: With records of who had accepted tickets and where they were going they began to reach out using the names and numbers they did have.
: Out of these 35,000 data points, there were about a thousand names that cities for whatever reason haven't redacted from the data. And so we just run all of those names through Nexis looking for phone numbers and contacts. We'd searched for these people on social media. And we tried to reach out to people that way.
: They didn't have a ton of luck making phone calls.
: But by their very nature a person who's experiencing homelessness is going to be hard to track down.
: Phone numbers no longer worked. The last known address could have been a decade old.
: Reports on homelessness that's just a constant issue that you face that you meet people on the street. And even if they happen to have a phone with them at that time maybe they're not able to charge it. Really frequently these phones get stolen all the time and that's that. So it's often hard to stay in touch with homeless people unless you know where they live or you can try and find them through friends of friends.
: But Julia found they had better success reaching the family members on the receiving end. And for her, speaking with those relatives changed her thinking.
: I spoke to some family members who said, "Yes, that's my family member. And no I never agreed that you could come back here." For a variety of reasons people just said, "You know he burned that bridge three years ago and and I wouldn't agree to have them back".
: Others weren't surprised to hear from Julia.
: At least with some of the folks it was like, "Oh you're calling about Jaylen. Somebody is always calling about Jaylen." You kind of got the sense that this was a person who was close to somebody who was potentially often in and out of situations where their next of kin would need to be contacted. I was surprised with people's candor, but also really appreciative of people's candor. Folks were talking about a very difficult situation that I've never been in myself which is to have this sense of responsibility towards another adult who really needs a lot of support, and yet they're not necessarily equipped or have the resources to provide that support but still feel that sense of obligation.
: All this gets at a central question. Who should be responsible for helping the homeless? Bussing shifted the burden away from the city and onto an individual.
: If you give somebody a bus ticket and ship them to their elderly parent or their retired sister it privatizes the responsibility and it puts it onto an individual family. It makes it easier and cheaper. But the burden is then placed in a very specific place and those folks aren't always really equipped to handle it.
: The data led them to a couple dozen homeless people who had accepted tickets and their families. But the reporters also wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to take a bus out of homelessness. The initial reporting for the project had started in early 2016. By this point it was already the summer of 2017 over a year later. It was always in the back of Alastair's mind that it would be challenging to find someone to ride along with, but it was proving increasingly difficult as the reporters struggled to meet someone before they accepted a bus ticket. Cities hadn't always been helpful in facilitating those interactions.
: So cities weren't so open to introducing us to some of their clients. We tried various cities. And it just became very hard because it became apparent that the city was really trying to manage the process by which we would meet that person and they clearly want to make sure it was a successful case.
: When officials didn't seem eager to help they decided to take matters into their own hands. August rolled around, and Alastair and another reporter had started spending their days outside of the San Francisco office that distributed bus tickets. They made it a routine to spend a few hours there every couple of days in hopes of meeting someone who had just accepted a ride.
: And so, we ended up just like finding a place in this office that was kind of out of line of vision, line of sight of the staff members. But just so we could keep an eye on basically who is going and who is coming out. Once they got out we just like ran out. And I've run up to them and say, "Hi. I am a reporter with The Guardian doing this thing about bus tickets. I guess you were just on that counter. So what's going on? Are you hoping to get a ticket? I'd be interested to hear more about it. Can I take you for a coffee?" All that kind of thing.
: It took patience and persistence. Once Alastair set up a time to meet a homeless woman for coffee the next day. She never showed. But the effort to establish those connections was worth it. When it comes to on-the-ground reporting concerning issues of homelessness one of the most important things you can do is simply meet people where they are, sit down and listen Julia said. You'll learn things that you wouldn't from policymakers or nonprofits.
: One of the really kind of striking things especially about folks who are living on the streets is just how ignored they are all day by people on the sidewalks. People don't like to make eye contact. They don't like to look and see that kind of poverty. It makes housed people uncomfortable. But if you go and talk to people I mean my general experience is that you know a lot of folks are very willing and eager just to have a conversation and to talk and to have somebody you know treat them like a human being for once. I think that so much reporting on homelessness kind of ignores homeless people and their agency and their voices.
: That's how Alastair met Quinn Raber. Quinn was in his late 20's and had been homeless for about three years. He'd struggled to find a stable living situation and keep a job.
: When I first met him in San Francisco coming out of the ticket office he seemed really physically tired and run down. He was reddened and he had red face and was stubble with sunburns. He seemed physically tired. He was really bundled up.
: Here's Quinn describing to The Guardian what it was like to be homeless.
: The roughest part about being homeless is the wear and tear from the concrete and the constant walking. And it's hard to use the restroom, because a lot of businesses don't want homeless people in their restrooms and messing them up. It really breaks you down.
: When Alastair approached Quinn outside of the office, he was in a hurry. His bus was set to leave in just a few hours and he didn't have time to talk. But he agreed to meet Alastair at the Greyhound station later that day, Alastair stood with Quinn in line as he was about to board the bus and quickly got down his name, the gist of his story and his contact info. And then Quinn was off. He would travel 2,275 miles over three days to his hometown of Indianapolis where he planned to stay with a friend and get a job.
: I couldn't get on the bus with him because it was just way too short notice. But I stayed in touch with him. I spoke to him when he was back in Indianapolis, it wasn't going so well there. And then a couple weeks after that I spoke to him again on the phone. And I said," Where are you?" He said, "I'm on a Greyhound Bus." And he said. "I'm coming back to San Francisco from Indianapolis."
: It hadn't worked out in Indianapolis. The friend Quinn was staying with had to enter into rehab, he told Alastair. And now he was homeless once again. So Alastair quickly coordinated with Quinn and planned to meet him in a town south of the Bay Area, so they could finally get the ride along they were hoping for and see a part of Quinn's journey.
: And so we went to this kind of podunk town in the middle of nowhere loitering around, again, waiting for this bus at 9-10 PM at night. So we jumped on. And we met Quinn on the bus. And we went back to him as he completed his return journey to San Francisco. And so this is a guy, mind you, that presumably now is on San Francisco's list of people who have officially been rehoused or rescued from homelessness. They gave him a ticket and said that's how they account for people getting tickets. But as we found accompanying him back to San Francisco. He was then homeless pretty much in the very, very same place that he had been before he even gotten the ticket in the first place.
: Quinn was back in San Francisco. He paid for the return ticket out of his own pocket. He's still without a permanent home. But ultimately the trip to Indianapolis had seemed to have a positive impact.
: Even though it hadn't worked out and that was sad, nevertheless he seems like he was in a better place that he was more setup for the rigors of dealing with homelessness in San Francisco. And I think he came back to San Francisco because earlier he told me. It was just the cities that he loved. He just felt he knew people here. He have had a setup here before he'd left even if he was homeless. He had someone he could stay with off and on. And so he come back under his own steam believing that, that was the better place to be for him than Indianapolis.
: Not everyone who accepted a bus ticket ended up in Quinn's situation. For some the bus program worked as intended leading them back to a support system that got them on track. Take Tiffany who is 22 and living in Fort Lauderdale. She'd grappled with alcoholism to the point where she would have to drink a can of beer as soon as she woke up to stave off the nausea.
: She was like in this dreadful dreadful spiral. And she was admitted to hospital. She had chronic pancreatitis. She had early stage cirrhosis of the liver. And so she was in a really bad state. In her early 20s, she was close to death.
: Her doctor recommended that she take a bus ticket to stay with her mom who lived on the other side of the state. Tiffany did and she credits that bus ride with saving her life. With her mom's help, she told The Guardian she's on the road to recovery. But for others stepping on a bus just left them homeless in a new city and often without access to key services.
: In the city of Key West, it takes all a step further. They have homeless people sign a document when they get ticket saying that if you come back to Key West because we were so generous to give you a ticket you agreed that you won't use homeless services on Key West when you come back.
: A provide a source who worked at the shelter in Key West leaked The Guardian a copy of the document. The Guardian found that some homeless people didn't fully understand the terms of their ticket. Here's Willie Romines a homeless man who said he was never informed about the restrictions.
: It's like close the door and get out of here. We bought you a bus ticket. You can't come back and that put a burden on me. I felt like I was swindled.
: But shelter organizers told The Guardian that barring homeless people from returning to Key West is the easiest way to get locals to support the bussing program. That I figured was the easiest sell when organizer said to The Guardian, "Give us money and we'll ship our homeless problem to somebody else". With The Guardian's investigation primarily focused on the over 20,000 homeless people who've been bussed across America. They also reported on a relocation program unique to New York. Almost half of the 34,000 journeys The Guardian analyzed originated in New York. That's about 17,000 relocations. And about 20 percent of those people were flown, not bussed, to their new destination. Some even cross borders to places like Puerto Rico, Honduras, and Canada. Within the US, Orlando Florida and Atlanta were the most popular destinations.
: As far as we can tell, it was the only city that is regularly flying people around the world. The farthest case we found was someone flown to New Zealand. We found people that had flown to India and other distant locations.
: One family, the Ortiz family, ended up in New York after living with a relative in Delaware didn't work out. When Jose Ortiz reached out to New York's Homelessness Department for assistance they told him he was ineligible for services because they had housing options in Puerto Rico. The city wouldn't give them housing assistance, but it could offer the family for one thing a plane ride back to Puerto Rico.
: And it was a difficult case because the city of New York would say like if somebody is newly arrived and we can divert them back to someplace that they have housing that's all for the best.
: And so, Jose really didn't want to leave. He thought that he was given no choice that you're basically saying you either go or you're on the street in New York. And so, he felt like he was between a rock and a hard place.
: The Ortiz family took the ticket in order to stay off the streets. A few months later in September Hurricane Maria devastated the island. By the time The Guardians investigation was published in December the reporters still hadn't heard from the family. It wasn't until recently that the Ortiz family replied to a reporter's Facebook message letting them know they're okay. After nearly 18 months of coordination between a team of reporters editors filmmakers data experts and freelancers the project was finally ready to be published. With records from 16 cities and counties, The Guardian team had created a national database that analyzed more than 34,000 journeys.
: A lot of the response that we saw was exactly what we were hoping for, which was folks saying, "Oh I kind of heard about this. I had no idea that it was so big. I had no idea that this was going on so widely". And folks kind of take in the conversation to the next step which is the step most homelessness stories end up with which is how is this happening? How is this the richest nation in the world and this is what's happening?
: They heard from advocates like the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing who was horrified by the findings. They heard from readers who felt compelled to take action and wanted to know what they could do to help. And they heard from some of the people they have featured in their story who told the reporters, they felt like their story had finally been heard.
: They thought the story was their story. In most cases when we heard back from people. People were just again grateful that we had shared their stories.
: Thanks for listening. Take a look at our episode notes for links to The Guardian's reporting and resources for covering homelessness. You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or Google Play or wherever else you get your podcast. And you can spend hours listening to the stories behind some of the best investigative reporting in the country at IRE.org/podcast. The IRE Radio Podcast is recorded in the studios of KBIA. Blake Nelson draws our art for each episode. Sarah Hutchins is our editor. From Columbia Missouri, I am Tessa Weinberg.
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