PWDF: Focus on Mental Disabilities



A One Way Bus Ticket: Is This the Right Way to Help the Homeless?

By Ross Pudaloff, Contributing Writer

Google the words “homeward bound San Francisco Bay Area." You might see a mention of a San Francisco program named “Homeward Bound.” That program provides bus tickets to send the homeless back to their hometowns.

The homeless population, like the population as a whole, includes people who have psychiatric and/or developmental disabilities. It may be that these individuals are homeless in part or whole because of their disabilities, though it also may be that there is no causal link between disabilities and homelessness in all cases. Still, we must recognize that there is some overlap between those individuals that People With Disabilities Foundation seeks to serve and the homeless as a whole.

City government, newspapers, web sources, etc. tell us that there are somewhere between 7000 and 14000 homeless people in San Francisco. Depending on where you live, how you think, what you do, and where you go, you may or may not have paid much attention to those people. Levels of awareness also often depend on where you are. Somebody who walks around the Mid-Market area is going to be a lot more aware of the homeless than someone sitting at a computer in a home office as I am now or someone else who might live in Humboldt County, though I would be surprised if there were not homeless people in the latter.

If homelessness is a problem, it follows, perhaps unfairly, that the homeless themselves embody the problem and, from there, it is easy enough to think of them as in some sense its cause. After all, we routinely call it the “homeless problem.” If you think about it, however, doing so echoes earlier formulations like the “Jewish problem,” the “Chinese problem,” or the “Negro problem.” We put the burden of the problem and therefore the solution on the discriminated against group when in fact the problem was with dominant culture.

There is a suspicion about those bus tickets which is vigorously disputed by the people at “Homeward Bound,” which is itself part of the Human Services Agency of San Francisco. It does indeed provide a bus ticket back home for homeless people. But talk with the man who runs it as I did and he will and does deny that it is inhumane. He is Gregory Kats, Manager of Administrative Technology and Outreach for the County Adult Assistance Programs. Under “Outreach” comes the offer to the homeless to pay their way out of town if they have a support network, in particular a place to stay, at their destination. It is a large and successful program, whose success, Mr. Kats suggests, is based on helping the homeless do what they want to do—namely, go home.

Homeward Bound is strictly voluntary. It is designed for those homeless people who do want to leave. They have to volunteer, a requirement which is in place for therapeutic as well as political reasons: the client needs to take some of the responsibility for what is going to happen. He or she must take the first step or two. In addition to the desire to participate, the individuals must have a support network in place at the other end. There have to be provisions for a place to stay and someone to assist the traveler. Often this is a family member; sometimes it is a social service worker. In either case, it is up to the client to find these individuals and provide their names to the program.

The Homeward Bound Program is one key component of what Mr. Kats describes as the “very compassionate” approach to the homeless in the city and county of San Francisco. The program is based on the principle of “housing first,” which means to meet first needs first (i.e., provide reasonably stable housing) and only then go on to deal with more “nuanced” issues such as mental health.

Whatever else it is or may be, it is certainly busy: according to Mr. Kats, 5300 individuals have taken the bus ride since the Human Services Agency took over the program from the Police Department in 2005. These tend to be people receiving General Assistance payments, so there’s an economic incentive of some sort for the city and county to help them return home.

Homeward Bound does run checks to make sure there are not any outstanding warrants or other legal impediments such as child support payments. If there are children, they must have proper documentation (e.g., birth certificates). The participants must be sober. Finally there is a judgment to be made that the individual is physically and mentally stable enough to travel. Other than that, however, it is strictly a decision made by the participant.

Guidelines call for a check on how the client is doing four to six weeks after arrival. The results, Mr. Kats states, are mostly good. The clients are still living in the place they moved to and are still involved in whatever programs (vocational, therapeutic) to which they had committed.

I felt good about Homeward Bound when I left Mr. Kats office. Then I found myself standing on Mission Street in the middle of what looked to be a crowd of homeless people. Some, I imagined, were not interested in leaving. Many no doubt were natives of the Bay Area. At least a few might have significant developmental or psychiatric problems. I talked with a few of them about the offer of a bus ticket. None expressed much interest in leaving town though they all were interested in finding a permanent place to live. None seemed particularly hopeful about that happening in the near future, whether here in San Francisco or elsewhere. Home was a word, a thought, an ideal, but not a reality.

Next E-Newsletter: What “Homeward Bound” means in Marin County


PWDF Profile

Who We Are

People With Disabilities Foundation is an operating 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, California, which focuses on the rights of the mentally and developmentally disabled.


Advocacy: PWDF advocates for Social Security claimant's disability benefits in eight Bay Area counties. We also provide services in disability rights, on issues regarding returning to work, and in ADA consultations, including areas of employment, health care, and education, among others. There is representation before all levels of federal court and Administrative Law Judges. No one is declined due to their inability to pay, and we offer a sliding scale for attorney's fees.

Education/Public Awareness: To help eliminate the stigma against people with mental disabilities in society, PWDF's educational program organizes workshops and public seminars, provides guest speakers with backgrounds in mental health, and produces educational materials such as videos.

Continuing Education Provider: State Bar of California MCLE, California Board of Behavioral Sciences Continuing Education, and Commission of Rehabilitation Counselor Certification.

PWDF does not provide legal assistance by email or telephone.

Unsubscribe from this e-newsletter list.