Busing the homeless out of town: 'Greyhound therapy' or a humane approach?

Jill Kernes, a homeless outreach coordinator, talks about family reunification with Carolyn Llagler, who has been living on the streets in San Diego for about six months. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / Union-Tribune)

From all appearances, Judy Bryant wanted out of San Diego.

For six years, the 48-year-old woman has been homeless there, and when she walked into an office at St. Vincent de Paul Village on a recent morning, she said she'd had enough of sleeping on concrete. She said she had spent the previous night on the back steps of a downtown apartment building.

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Her daughter back home in North Carolina has a place for Bryant to stay if she can figure out how to get there, she said.

That's where the Family Reunification Program comes in.

Run by the Downtown San Diego Partnership, it provides free bus tickets for homeless people to go live with relatives in other cities. If Bryant's story checks out, she could be on board that night and back in North Carolina in three days.

"It's a way for people to reconnect with their family support systems and start over," said Alonso Vivas, executive director of the partnership's Clean & Safe team, which runs the program.

Critics call relocation efforts such as this "Greyhound therapy" and say all they do is shuffle the homeless from one place to another. But the programs, cheaper than providing housing, are popular in cities all across America, and the one in San Diego is expanding.

After sending about 1,100 people to other places from early 2012 through mid- 2017, it's bused out almost 600 in the last eight months.

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Part of the surge comes from aggressive outreach by the program. It dispatches a worker in a golf cart on weekdays to look for potential travelers. It recruits in temporary shelters. It gets referrals from the police and homeless-assistance agencies.

Some observers said the increase may also be due to law enforcement sweeps in the downtown area that are making it harder for the unsheltered homeless there — 1,276 people, according to a count last year — to pitch tents on sidewalks and sleep in doorways.

"Will people be more susceptible to using the program because they feel like there are no other options here?" asked Michael McConnell, former vice chairman of the Regional Task Force on the Homeless. "That's my fear, and I'm not so sure the city would care."

Program officials said caring is central to what they do. They point to success stories involving disabled veterans, domestic violence survivors and the mentally ill, all off to what they hope are better futures in almost every state in the nation.

Among them was Angelo Doyle, 42, who came to San Diego from Memphis, Tenn., last year, "trying to start a new life." He moved in with a cousin. "I thought he was paying his bills and he wasn't," Doyle said in a phone interview. "We got evicted. It was horrifying."

Blind, with no other family or friends here to contact, he reached out to various agencies for housing but "nobody could help me as fast as I needed," he said. Then he heard about the Family Reunification Program. Outreach coordinator Latara Hamilton put him on a bus back to Tennessee.

"She saved my life," Doyle said.

Reaching out

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On a recent weekday morning, Jill Kernes steered a golf cart along the streets of downtown San Diego. She was looking for people she refers to not as homeless, but as "housing challenged."

Kernes is an outreach coordinator for the Family Reunification Program. She's been doing the job for about nine months, after a 10-year career as a sheriff's deputy ended. A tussle with an inmate at Las Colinas jail left her with a broken shooting wrist and a medical retirement.

She sees outreach work as a calling. "These people spend their days feeling invisible," she said. "I see them. They are totally visible to me."

Her approach is all carrot, no stick. "How you doing, honey?" she said as she approached a woman sitting against the side of a building in East Village. The woman had her belongings in black trash bags. Kernes offered her new socks, which the woman accepted.

Then Kernes asked if she'd heard about the bus program. "Do you have family you'd like to reconnect with? We'll help you get there, anywhere in the U.S. We'll pay for the ticket."

The woman nodded in a vague way. Kernes handed her a program flier but didn't push further.

"It wasn't a 'yes' and it wasn't a 'no,'" she said a few minutes later as she walked back to the golf cart. "It was a 'maybe.' I can work with 'maybe.'"

Almost 40% of those who get on a bus hear about the program through the outreach efforts. On a typical day, Kernes interacts with more than 80 homeless people, she said. Some know her by name now.

She knows them by their stories.

Many arrive in San Diego with unrealistic expectations about the job market or the affordability of housing, she said. "They come here for the dream and the first night they get robbed and wind up sleeping in the park."

The newly homeless have proved the easiest to attract, according to statistics kept by the program. Since last June, almost half of those leaving via buses have been on the streets n the city for less than six months. One woman had been there only two hours.

The long-term homeless are another matter. Less than 6% of the Greyhound riders since last June have been homeless for longer than five years.

"This is their life now," Kernes said. "They've lost track of their families."

At Horton Plaza, she parked the golf cart, hopped out and said, "Let's see if there are any lives we can change." She approached a couple sitting on a bench, surrounded by suitcases. They had a small dog with them.

"Is there family we could connect you with?" Kernes asked. "We'll send you anywhere in the continental U.S."

The woman thought for a few seconds. "All dead," she said.

"All dead," the man echoed.

It's a one-way, one-time offer. Those who accept are asked to move quickly.

"This isn't a travel agency," said Ketra Carter, lead homeless outreach coordinator. "You can't come here and say you'd like to schedule something for April. You're going now."

Bryant, the homeless woman from North Carolina, seemed ready. She came in to St. Vincent de Paul in East Village a couple of weeks ago and went first to Travelers Aid, the nonprofit that's been helping the stranded in San Diego for more than a century.

Case manager Shannon Lamoureux checked to make sure Bryant hadn't gone Greyhound before — a no-go if she had — and then wrote down upcoming departure times for bus rides to Dunn, N.C.

Carter ran a criminal-records check on a database. Registered sex offenders are out. So too are convicted arsonists. There can't be any warrants.

Everything came up clean. Carter phoned Bryant's daughter to confirm she was OK with her mom living there. Sometimes the person on the other end says "no."

The daughter said "yes." Carter wrote down her address. A veteran of the hotel/hospitality industry, she's learned not to be surprised by anything anyone tells her, and as she talked to the Bryants, she was gauging how committed each seemed to making the new arrangement work.

There were some applicants late last year who just wanted a ride home for the holidays, she said. One man was only interested in attending a funeral out of town.

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And sometimes those on the receiving end aren't fully aware of what they're getting into. "Most people don't understand that homelessness is not about having four walls and a roof," Carter said. "It's about having a support system."

First impressions matter too. Carter has two bookshelves in her office filled with donated clothes to give to the travelers so they can look nice when they arrive.

Carter asked Bryant a series of questions. How long have you been homeless? What brought you to San Diego? Have you been diagnosed with a mental illness? Are you taking your medication?

Bryant described herself as bipolar. She said she handles it by keeping to herself. She smiled at the memory of coming to San Diego with her boyfriend: "I'd never been to California. I closed my eyes and put my finger on a map. San Diego was the city under my finger when I opened my eyes."

Now she was on the verge of going home. But unpredictability comes with the homeless, and at the last minute she decided she had things to take care of here. One week went by, then another. Carter kept in touch with Bryant and her daughter, and finally, on Thursday, it seemed like it would finally happen.

But Bryant didn't show up for the bus ride. Carter drove around downtown looking for her, to no avail.

"Things happen," she said. "For some people this is a hard step to take — literally the first step out of homelessness."

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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