Homeward Bound Program Offers Free Bus Ride Home

By Scott Nelson

As part of San Francisco’s efforts to address the homeless situation, the City offers a free bus ride home for homeless or low income persons. The program applies for those who are not from the Bay Area and want to return home or to a city in which they have family or friends willing to take them in.

In order to qualify for the Homeward Bound program, a person must (1) be homeless/low income and living in San Francisco; (2) have family or friends at the destination that staff can verify as willing and able to provide a place to stay; (3) be medically stable enough to travel unassisted to the destination; and (4) be sober and able to abstain from alcohol and/or using other substances en route.

In order to use this program, the person’s personal hygiene must be at an acceptable level, with clothing and shower facilities that can be provided before the trip. In addition, the person may not travel with a pet (exceptions may be made for a certified service animal).

To sign up for the program (and travel the same day), the person needs to show up ready to go at the Welfare Office at 1235 Mission St. (between 8th and 9th streets) by 9:00 AM on a Monday through Friday. At that time an interview is conducted by Homeward Bound staff, who will have the person fill out a self-verification form with several questions, including the following:

Full name; Social Security number; phone number of family or friends where the person intends to stay; any outstanding warrants or parole or probation cases (presumably if the person affirms any warrants or parole or probation cases, Homeward Bound staff would ask the person to clear them up prior to travel). During the entire process, identification does not need to be shown or provided.

Homeward Bound staff also verbally asks whether the person is receiving General Assistance or Food Stamps (and will have the Welfare Office cut off any such benefits after the person catches the bus).

Staff then places a call to the phone number provided in order to speak with the person at whose residence the potential bus traveler will be staying. If that person affirms that the homeless person can stay, then staff has the person wait around until 9:45, by which time staff has verified that the person has not previously used Homeward Bound (it’s a once-in-a-lifetime program). If staff cannot get through on the phone, the person may come back at 2 – 4 pm and have staff try again to establish phone contact (but would have to travel the following day if the phone call recipient says Yes). If the call recipient declines to provide a place to stay, the homeless person cannot use the Homeward Bound program.

At 9:45 staff lets the person know whether they are approved. Homeward Bound staff then tells the person to check in again at 10:45, and at that time the person waits around until 11:45, at which time all approved bus travelers are loaded into a van and driven to the Greyhound Station at the temporary Transbay Terminal.

Homeward Bound staff then purchases all tickets, and holds them until the bus is about to load (around 1:00 PM). When the bus is called, staff hands everyone their tickets and also gives each traveler $10 to $40 per day in travel funds, with the greatest funds allowed for those traveling to East Coast destinations (which takes up to four days). Homeward Bound has a map posted at their office indicating the days of travel time for various destinations.

A potential traveler may also contact Homeward Bound staff at the Welfare Office during their afternoon hours of 2 – 4 PM and make all the arrangements to travel the following weekday.

The Homeward Bound program was started in February 2005 during the administration of Mayor Gavin Newsom, and was in response to an initiative seeking to connect homeless persons with out-of-area resources. As of 2015, approximately 9,000 persons have used the program to reconnect with family and friends back home, at a rate of about 800 travelers per year. The program has the added bonus of giving city officials bragging rights – they claim for every ticket out of town, that they have “permanently” housed a homeless person, and are able to greatly increase the publicly released number of people they have gotten off the streets.

Besides San Francisco, a number of other cities offer bus rides home to their homeless populations including New York City; Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and St. Petersburg FL; Baton Rouge, LA; Las Vegas, NV; and San Diego. Even Honolulu, HA, offers a similar program, although they provide airline tickets to fly back home.