Shipped Off

When you're down and out in West Palm, a free ticket to New York can mean just being homeless in another city

We wait there on the curb, through two more Marlboros with the filters bitten in half. The sidewalk is packed with tourists, drug dealers, and stranded Port Authority travelers like Joe. After another hour, I ask him where he'll go.

"I have no fuckin' clue," he says. "I really don't."

In the first minutes of his return, Joe has ended up homeless and destitute again in one of the toughest places any footloose recovering drug addict could ever find. He has gotten there thanks to a social service program that, by most accounts, operates on the good intentions of helping homeless Palm Beach County residents get back to their families. But, it quickly becomes clear, there's never any assurance that the problems of the homeless won't stop chasing them wherever they can travel on a Greyhound.

Joe says the folks at home haven't yet seen his new tattoos. Along the way, Joe meets Mike, the scold, sitting to his right during an early-morning stop in North Carolina.
Joe says the folks at home haven't yet seen his new tattoos. Along the way, Joe meets Mike, the scold, sitting to his right during an early-morning stop in North Carolina.
The bus to New York drops Joe off in one of midtown Manhattan's roughest spots, in front of the Port Authority terminal.
The bus to New York drops Joe off in one of midtown Manhattan's roughest spots, in front of the Port Authority terminal.

Joe's journey to New York would turn out to be just another chapter in his troubled young life, emblematic of the pitfalls of shipping the homeless off on buses. He'd get mixed up with the wrong crowd in the back rows, almost get kicked off the bus once or twice, and barely escape new entanglements with the law. He'd get off the bus with a future gloomier than the one he left. But along the way, he'd show an abiding, maybe irrational, hope for the future, however blind it may have been.


For seven years now, Lela Jordan has been the City of West Palm Beach's community resources coordinator. Most of the time, that means her job is to find places to stay for the homeless people who wander into her office on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard. That's a next-to-impossible task in Palm Beach County, which has only 79 emergency shelter beds for an estimated 3,900 people living on the streets. Earlier this year, the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty even called Palm Beach County one of the five worst places in the country to be homeless.

Jordan came up with a simple solution in January 2002. At the time, a homeless mother with two babies sat in her office. "She had nowhere to go," recalls Jordan, an intense woman with red spiky hair. "So I asked if she wanted to go back home. We found someone who would take her in, and we had her on a bus that day." It worked so well, Jordan started doing it with many of the homeless people who came into her office. She dubbed the bus ticket program Homeward Bound and started soliciting donations from businesses. She gives free tickets only if the would-be recipient isn't wanted by the cops and only if there's someone at the other end of the line willing to take them in. By September of this year, Jordan had spent $13,000 of mainly donated money to buy tickets for 112 adults and 29 children. They've gone as far as Edmonton, Canada, and as close as Fort Myers. Often, they go back to live with parents who have long ago written them off. "They clearly have a better chance," Jordan says, "if we can get them back with family that will care for them."

Without realizing it at the time, Jordan and her program had become part of a nationwide movement to gently -- or heartlessly, critics say -- transport a messy local social problem to other, preferably distant localities. In the past couple of years, free bus ticket programs have opened in dozens of cities, and there are now such operations from Atlanta to Las Vegas. Advocates say a free bus ride back home is better than being sent to a shelter among strangers. Besides, the programs save local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars required to fund homeless shelters.

Critics, however, say it's an ill-advised way to cut the number of homeless residents in a community. Putting them on buses merely moves the problem elsewhere, says Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. Sending them away gives communities like Palm Beach County an excuse to keep funding for shelters at a minimum. In addition, those who take the free bus tickets won't get the help with job training, drug counseling, and other services offered by many homeless shelters. "It is a lot more compassionate than just putting them in jail or dropping them off at the city limits, which is what's done in many places," Whitehead says. "But these programs still fall short of addressing the problem of homelessness."

Once homeless residents are on buses, no one's keeping track of them. In West Palm, no one knows if the 141 shipped-out souls were ever actually taken in by their families or if they simply returned to the streets. Occasionally, one of them will call Jordan to tell her how he's turned things around, but mostly the Homeward Bound program never hears from them again.

Most must start over with absolutely nothing in their pockets. Homeward Bound's caseworkers have no funds to supply their clients with cash. For voyages that often take several days, the relocatees are supplied only with whatever food has been donated recently to the program. So Joe wouldn't go hungry, Homeward Bound gave him two shopping bags of donated junk food.

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