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San Francisco sent hundreds of homeless people away. To where, the city doesn’t know

Illustration: sunset behind a bridge, tents lining a road, two people walking, and parked buses in the foreground.
San Francisco has no idea where hundreds of homeless people have gone after giving them bus, train and airline tickets to return to their families. | Source: AI illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

San Francisco has no idea where hundreds of homeless people have gone after giving them bus, train and airline tickets to return to their families in other parts of the country over the past two years, The Standard has learned.

The origin of San Francisco’s homeless population is one of the most persistent and controversial questions posed about the city’s crisis, with some policymakers arguing that out-of-towners flock here for welfare and should be returned home. The issue has spurred policy changes, like Proposition F, which was passed in March and ties drug screenings to welfare benefits in some cases. 

But the Homeward Bound program, a city-funded service that officials say has reunited thousands of homeless people in San Francisco with their out-of-town families since 2005, stopped collecting basic data about where people were transported to in early 2022. Officials said the program’s location collection efforts and database ended in 2022 but did not elaborate further as to why.  

A person in red shoes stands by a blue bus with a greyhound logo; luggage is visible underneath.
Since early 2022, the Homeward Bound stopped collecting basic data about the destinations homeless people traveled to under the program. | Source: Stephen Zenner/SOPA Images/Getty Images

Since June 2022, the city has spent $202,010 on the program, which is part of a larger “problem-solving” effort that provides cash stipends to people for furniture, rent and other means that may help them stave off homelessness, like fixing their cars so they can get to work, for example. 

After the Board of Supervisors passed new legislation from Supervisor Ahsha Safaí last month to expand Homeward Bound to people in shelters and permanent supportive housing, the program will track where it sends homeless people, starting in July. The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which currently runs the program, will also have to provide an annual report on the program to the board.

The homelessness department didn’t provide the number of people the bus ticket program has served over the past two years. But city records analyzed by The Standard estimate around 400 people were sent away on buses, trains and airplanes via Homeward Bound. No breakdown of how many bus, train or flight tickets were paid for by the city was supplied when requested.

Safaí said when the program was moved from the Human Services Agency to the homelessness department, there was poor communication on how it should be run.

“I think they just didn’t have the internal tools to follow through with how the program should be operated,” Safaí said. “We’ve put into the program language we have to be able to account for who utilizes the program. … I would say it was just poor management, poor oversight and accountability.”

A man in a suit converses with a woman outside at night, near a lit-up ambulance.
New legislation from Supervisor Ahsha Safaí passed last month expanded the Homeward Bound program. | Source: Morgan Ellis/The Standard

Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, said he believes the pause in location tracking was part of the city’s larger effort to sweep homelessness out of view. 

“They don’t want to know,” Boden said. “When they want to, they track everything.”

The Homeward Bound program launched in 2005 under then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, but it slowed down when travel was restricted during the pandemic. 

But when the program picked up the pace again in 2022, the homelessness department neglected to revamp its data efforts.

When asked about the outcomes of people in the program, the department did not provide any data. But in a press release last month, Mayor London Breed said participants rarely return to San Francisco. Safaí said most program users are sent to other cities in California.

A person is lying on a sidewalk by a building, with traffic cones and vehicles visible in the street in the background.
A person lays on the sidewalk in the Tenderloin District on Oct. 12, 2023. | Source: Loren Elliott for The Standard

Roughly 71% of the city’s homeless population reported having a previous address in San Francisco, a 2022 survey conducted by the city found. However, some policymakers have called that data into question as it’s self-reported. 

In February, Supervisor Matt Dorsey asked the City Controller’s Office to produce an annual report tracking the home addresses of people who have been arrested for drug use or who have died from overdoses in the city in order to quantify so-called “drug tourism.”

Boden criticized the focus on whether people are from the city, arguing that it’s meant to distract from the city’s failure to house and provide treatment for vulnerable people.

“This is what happens with people that are poor and disabled or unhoused,” Boden said. “It’s like, ‘Here’s a one-way bus ticket, brother.’”

David Sjostedt can be reached at