New York City saves money by sending thousands of homeless people somewhere else

For years there have been stories about “bus ticket therapy” for the homeless, i.e. major cities offering free rides out of town to the homeless. And for just as many years there have been articles claiming that nothing like this really happens, that it’s just a rumor that gets spread by anxious mayors and city council members wherever you go. But it turns out New York City does have something like this. The city will pay one year of free rent for applicants to a program called Special One-Time Assistance. Not all of the people who benefit leave New York, but a lot of them do. From Real Clear Investigations:

Since 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has used a program called Special One-Time Assistance to relocate nearly 10,000 homeless people to over 300 cities. The program – which directly pays landlords a year of rent upfront, free to the beneficiary – is a significant departure from past city homeless relocation efforts because it does not require participants to have strong community ties to the new destination…

The breadth of the program has remained unclear until now. New York City records provided to RCI show that, in addition to relocations within New York City, participants have gone to 312 cities and towns across the country. Many have decided to stay within commuting distance – about 1,200 households have relocated to the nearby New Jersey communities of Newark, Irvington and East Orange. Nearly 1,200 households have used it to live within city confines…

The benefits for the city are clear: reduced costs and a reduced shelter population. Just to keep families with children in shelter, the city spent on average $192.10 per family per day in Fiscal Year 2018 – that’s about $70,117 annually. The average cost of a year’s rent for a household that moves out of state is only $15,000, according to a city record provided to RCI. And those relocated must bear their own transportation costs.

As the article points out, it’s not just the cost of shelters. The homeless also are a burden on public health services and children in school tend to be lower performing (for obvious reasons) and drag down city and state test scores.

So the program makes perfect sense for New York City. It gets to offload a bunch of people creating an expensive problem. You can also see how there is an immediate benefit to the homeless people as well. They get to move out of shelters with a bunch of strangers with problems and are given their own apartment for free for an entire year. In the best case scenario, this could be plenty of time for someone to get on their feet in a new community where the cost of living is lower than NYC.

Where the plan may fall apart is what happens after the year is up. If someone doesn’t pull things together they could wind up back on the street after that year only now they’re New Jersey’s problem. New York City told Real Clear Investigations that only 70 people who’d been part of the program had returned to NYC shelters. But they didn’t offer any specifics about how they know that. And besides, that doesn’t address the people who wind up in shelters in another state. Because that’s the point. NYC is offloading its problem citizens on others. Again, that may look like a success to NYC but it probably does not to the mayors of cities in New Jersey or even other parts of the country where these people wind up back on the streets.

Other cities with significant homeless populations have similar programs. Seattle has a program called “flexible reunification or travel support” which provides one-way travel, sometimes by plane and sometimes by bus, to people who have family or a job waiting on the other end. KOMO News reported on one homeless couple who were given flights to Kansas last year. The New York program doesn’t require any relatives on the other end but it does require that at least one person in the family has a job capable of paying the rent once the free year is up.

And there are always accusations going both ways. LA has allegedly bussed homeless people to Bakersfield for years and meanwhile, LA accuses surrounding areas of sending homeless people into the city. There is a similar dynamic in Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, etc.