It sounds like the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand: the government will buy a homeless person a one-way plane ticket to live with her family far away.
It also sounds like deportation and budget-cutting: the government will compel a homeless person to leave its state or city so it can burden some other jurisdiction with the costs of shelter and other services.
In practice, it is both.
In July, Hawaii’s state legislature approved a three-year pilot project to send the homeless to stay with family on the mainland. It isn’t the first to dream this up: New York City has also bought plane and train tickets and even automobile gas cards to shoo the down-on-their-luck out of Gotham. San Francisco, Baton Rouge and Fort Lauderdale have also tried versions of the same approach.
What are they shooing people toward? Often it is just a different flavor of homelessness somewhere else. New York said it was delivering people to their families, but having relatives does not mean having a home. Cramming an extra body into a household is rarely a long-term solution. It tends to lead to couch-surfing, where a person without a home of her own moves from one household to another, forced to find new accommodations each time she wears out her welcome, until she runs out of sofas and ends up back on the street.
Think that family would never make a relative uncomfortable in their home, or even force her out on the street? Julie Bosman of The New York Times reported in 2009 on a family who had been living with the father’s mother until she threatened to kick them all out — including her grandchildren — when bills began to mount. The family had to resort to an intake center for homeless shelters.
In that case, the family was happy to go back where they came from, but that is not always the case.
Sometimes authorities offer one-way tickets only as the best of bad options, especially for people averse to shelters. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, “Oftentimes local police departments run such programs offering the stark choices of going to a shelter, jail or hopping on a bus or plane home.”
What’s so bad about being forced into a shelter? Plenty. Some shelters are infested with lice, fleas, or bedbugs. Some guests have and spread communicable diseases. Violence is a problem. A particularly common complaint is theft of a guest’s meager belongings — perhaps most devastatingly, shoes. And shelters split families up into men-only and women-only buildings or rooms.
Even for those who prefer shelters to sleeping rough, gaining a berth in a facility for one night does not guarantee access the next night. Some places require the homeless to queue up beginning in the early afternoon; if someone can’t get there in time, maybe because they have a doctor’s appointment or a job interview or job training or a job, they won’t snag a bed.
Shelters can be such a raw deal, so a ticket to somewhere else may be the most appealing option. A new locale offers at least the hope that things will be better. And sometimes they are, but sometimes homeless individuals and families face the same obstacles — lack of education or training, a shortage of jobs, disabilities, addiction, mental illness and more — that they faced in the place that escorted them out.
For governments, on the other hand, it’s a cost-effective proposition. New York City reported that of all the people it ferried out of town, not a one landed back in a NYC shelter. There is no word on whether any of them showed up at a shelter in their new town.