S.F. Paying to Send the Homeless Back Home

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"Homeward Bound" is a San Francisco city program that pays for homeless people to go back to their hometowns. The effort has drawn praise from many San Francisco residents, but critics accuse the city of exporting the homeless problem instead of solving it.

MADELINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. Coming up on the program, a look at one of nature's oldest and most exotic flowers, the orchid. I'm Madeline Brand in the studios of NPR West.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick in San Francisco. Look around this city, it's hard to miss the million dollar homes. In fact, a million bucks won't get you much more than a two bedroom condo in some parts of San Francisco these days. But it's also hard to miss this city's homeless population. The most recent count by the San Francisco Department of Human Services puts the total number of homeless in the city at more than 6,000.

Now, San Francisco thinks maybe it's found at least a partial solution. Send the homeless back home, back to where they've come from, where friends and family may help them. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom calls his Homeward Bound program a major success, but as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, critics say San Francisco is dumping its problems on others.

RICHARD GONZALES, reporting:

Early morning at the San Francisco County Welfare Office, and lots of clients come in to pick up their checks. Some are homeless and they just want a ticket out of town.

Mr. BEN AMES (Social Worker, Homeward Bound): Are you here for, are you guys here for Homeward Bound?'

GONZALES: Ben Ames is the main social worker for the Homeward Bound program.

Mr. AMES: Yeah, it's voluntary. You know, we're not forcing people out of town. We're making sure they have someplace to go, and then we're doing the follow-ups with people to make sure that they got there, you know, successfully, and that we're not putting people into, you know, a really negative situation somewhere else.

GONZALES: Ames is looking for people who get stuck here because for whatever reason they can't make it. They wind up on the street homeless and want to leave. Like 48-year-old Philippe Dordas(ph), a handyman and construction worker from Florida. He recently came to San Francisco to work on a luxury cruiser, but the job didn't pan out and then he was robbed.

Mr. PHILIPPE DORDAS (Homeless, San Francisco): The moment that I had my jacket with my cell phone and all my communication lines stolen, basically I realized, wow, I'm stranded. I don't know anybody in the city. Now what am I going to do?

GONZALES: Dordas knew what he didn't want to do, and that was sleep on the sidewalks. So he spent his first homeless night walking the streets, and that's when he witnessed a brutal mugging.

Mr. DORDAS: It's a beautiful city but it's a rough streets of San Francisco, tell you that much. That's all I can say. Don't wind up on the street.

GONZALES: Under the Homeward Bound program, Dordas can get a one way bus ticket the same day he applies. A plain-clothes cop, Sanje Saustry(ph), handles the arrangements with the Greyhound Bus Line.

Officer SANJE SAUSTRY (Policeman, San Francisco): Okay, Flagstaff is at 12:30. How about Detroit, Michigan? One hundred fifty eight, thank you very much. One p.m., I got it.

GONZALES: The Homeward Bound program has helped close to one thousand clients. They're required to be psychiatrically stable with no apparent drug or alcohol problem. And they have to convince social workers someone back home will receive them. And there's the rub. Officials of the North Coast County of Humboldt recently complained that San Francisco was using Greyhound therapy to dump its homeless.

The dispute was resolved when San Francisco officials promised to notify Humboldt County whenever it was sending someone back there. But social worker Ben Ames insists San Francisco isn't dumping, as he talks about one potential client from Tennessee.

Mr. AMES: And I said, Do you want to go back to Tennessee? And she stopped and she looked at me and she said, My brother shot my mother and my father raped me. And I looked at her and I said, Well, we're not sending you back to Tennessee, now are we?

GONZALES: Not everyone is sent home. About nineteen hundred hardcore homeless have been moved from the streets and shelters into city sponsored apartments and hotels. The Homeward Bound program is a brainchild of Mayor Gavin Newsom. He says he was inspired by a media report of a Florida family who rescued their homeless sister from the San Francisco streets.

Mayor GAVIN NEWSOM (San Francisco): Remember, the vast majority of people that are out on the sidewalks are not from San Francisco originally, and they all have some contacts somewhere, a godparent, a mother, brother, sister, uncle, son, daughter. And those are the people, beyond anything else, that can help turn their lives around. The government can do its job, but we'll never do a better job than a family member can do in terms of helping a loved one.

GONZALES: But homeless advocates such as Juan Prava(ph), director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, has his doubts.

Mr. JUAN PRAVA (Director, San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness): In the outset it's like, Oh, you're reuniting people with their families. But if you start to like go and scratch on the surface of this, how much real follow-up can we do on this? I mean, other than people being received, yeah they have a place where they can go. They have a hook in which they can get started. But we don't really know what happens after a while and they become someone else's problem.

GONZALES: And someone else's expense. Mayor Newsom says Homeward Bound has cost the city less than 100,000 dollars. Compared to the millions of dollars it costs to house the homeless, Newsom says the financial return is obvious.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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