Civic leaders in Portland, Oregon, want to start busing homeless people out of town. The city council there quietly set aside $30,000 to buy one-way tickets for certain homeless individuals last week, the Portland Mercury reports.
The new policy, called the Reunification/Transportation Services Program, is one sliver of a much broader response to homelessness so widespread that the city declared a state of emergency last fall.
That $30 million effort contains a mix of policies that have broad support from homelessness advocates, with half the spending aimed at building or improving places for homeless people to live and half directed to preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. And the city has zigged where others zag, leaving homeless campers to establish temporary communities rather than strictly enforcing anti-camping laws. Both the spending allocations and the enforcement decisions reflect best-practices recommendations from advocates and federal agencies.
But the bus tickets idea is on shakier ground.
For one thing, the planning document for it indicates part of the money will be spent fingerprinting or otherwise creating biometric records of participants, an effort at preventing repeat use of the tickets program that could nevertheless end up facilitating police harassment of homeless individuals.
And more fundamentally, one-way bus tickets out of town are more likely to spread homelessness around than actually end it. Such policies have been tried in a number of other places — Baton Rouge, New York, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, and even Hawaii — with varying outcomes.
Busing programs like Portland’s differ in key ways from the scandalous allegations against a Nevada state mental hospital in 2013, which had allegedly been putting mentally ill homeless people on buses to San Francisco as a way of dumping them onto another state.
In theory, identifying homeless residents who want to leave town in order to reunite with family or accept a job opportunity elsewhere can be a productive step toward stability. Portland will only provide a ticket to people if staff can verify that family or friends will be waiting at the other end of the bus ride to provide shelter and support. The city says it will provide tickets to people who ask for them, rather than cajoling or forcing people to get out of town.
But even a limited busing program where staff work to ensure they aren’t simply dumping someone onto another city’s streets can go awry, advocates say, if it is run by police rather than homelessness outreach specialists.
Portland’s planning document does not mention police involvement one way or the other. And it sets a goal of getting bus tickets for 500 people, suggesting that institutional momentum could lead the city to make more aggressive sales pitches if there aren’t 500 volunteers for the system who have families to return to.