Transferring the homeless: Cities sending unhoused to other towns

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| Published , updated February 9, 2024

Myth says: Neighboring municipalities are shipping busloads of unsheltered people to your town.

Research says:

Yes, some social services providers and local charitable organizations do offer to pay for unsheltered people’s tickets so they can travel to nearby communities on an informal, as-needed basis. Transportation is almost always by bus, but in rare cases train or plane. Transfers can help those in need of services access services where they are are available.

However, some municipalities such as Barrie, Ontario have formalized, systematic programs such as the “Family Re-unification Fund” to pay for the transportation costs of homeless individuals leaving their city.

Some cities, businesses and residents view free bus tickets as a cheap and effective way of cutting their homeless populations, resulting in individuals being sent against their will, under false pretenses, and/or with no plan in place when they arrive.

How does it work?

The practice has been around in various forms for a long time, with it being dubbed “Greyhound Therapy” back in 2008.

When done properly, transfers are offered when:

  1. There is no shelter space available in a community for the unsheltered person
  2. A service provider contacts a service provider in a neighbouring community to check if they have the necessary services available
  3. The unhoused individual gives their informed consent to accept the transportation
  4. The service provider connects the unhoused individual with their new service provider who can meet with them once they arrive

Formalized transfer programs do exist, but in general, most cases seem to be done on an as-needed, informal basis by community service providers.

Smaller and rural communities often have fewer resources and shelters than city centres, little to no homelessness prevention or accommodation strategies. However, cities across Canada are struggling with the rise of homelessness, so even large municipalities’ shelters are full and services overwhelmed.

In some cases, people have been sent informally with no justification given or plan in place. Some individuals have said they felt pressured into taking tickets, were given false pretenses eg. “housing is plentiful and services easy to access in [city]” and others described ending up on the streets within weeks of their arrival.

Instead of acknowledging that our municipality/province/government is failing its residents and citizens, the myth simply points the finger and blames the homelessness crisis on someone else, when that someone else also is struggling with the crisis as well. This gives an excuse for people to ignore the problem, and it can potentially harm efforts to help the unhoused by stigmatizing them further.

People want to cling to that idea of who belongs here and who was here first

Rebecca Morgan-Quin, City of Peterborough’s housing manager, 2019
Comment
byu/cansumerist from discussion
inontario

Canadian citizens have Mobility Rights

People are entitled to move for any reason, homeless or not. Canadian citizens have mobility rights (freedom of movement) under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is not illegal if the unsheltered people that are getting on the bus are doing so willingly.

In Ontario, an individual’s Ontario Works file can be transferred. They have the right to access local services, and can even have their file transferred elsewhere again if they so wish.

Formalized programs

In 2023, Barrie council approved the Social Action Plan, among other programs a “Family Re-unification Fund” to pay for the transportation costs and help re-unite individuals with families or support group with $825,000 for 2 years.

Toronto had a short-lived Project Going Home in 1999.

Informal, ad-hoc transfers between service providers, charitable organizations

Informal transfers are often done out of necessity and compassion, without being part of a wider or more regular system or plan.

Organizations that have done so include:

  • GTA shelter called the Salvation Army in Ajax
  • ASK Wellness Society in Kamloops
  • New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development

Natural inflows and outflows

Others may travel somewhere themselves, to get a fresh start or a genuine belief (rightly or wrongly) that there will be greater access to food, shelter and support in a city. It’s social services’ job to support those individuals and their wishes as well.

There is a certain amount of transience and people do come to Peterborough, and they leave Peterborough.

I would say the inflow is probably similar to the outflow.

They could be coming for opportunities they perceive to be in Peterborough that they don’t have elsewhere.

Morgan-Quin, City of Peterborough’s housing manager

People tend to move to places where they have “natural supports like family, friends, services or a doctor they are attached to.” Many rediscover old support networks, finding a safe place to sleep, caring friends or family, and the stepping stones that lead, eventually, to their own home. And if those supports are in another community, they will help the person get back to them.

Transfers of homeless individuals

2023 – Barrie creates formal Family Re-unification Fund

In 2023, council approved the Social Action Plan $825,000 for 2 years to fund, among other programs a “Family Re-unification Fund” to pay for the transportation costs and help re-unite individuals with families or support group:

Family Re-unification Fund to pay for the transportation costs and help re-unite individuals with families or support groups. 

Changes to the city’s bylaws, protocols and processes to:

  • Prohibit the use or distribution of tents or tarps in city parks or on public land without a permit
  • Prohibit the distribution of food and grocery products in public spaces without a permit
  • Reduce the time required to address camping in parks and the storage of goods in parks or public places

Methods to prohibit the payment to panhandlers on City Streets, intersections, and highway ramps. 

Placement of signs on City off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support thereof and encouraging donations to local social service agencies.

There will be methods to prohibit the payments to panhandlers on city streets, intersections and highway ramps, along with placing signs on city off-ramps to discourage panhandling or financial support, and encourage donations to the local social service agencies instead.

Social Action Plan

In response, an anonymous advocacy group called Barrie Express Bus sent all councillors a letter saying it would use public bus networks, private transportation and charter coach transportation to send the homeless directly to council members’ homes if they didn’t reconsider or repeal the policies, stating that they “could potentially criminalize acts of compassion towards people experiencing homelessness in the city.” None of these measures took place.

2023 – Ajax Regional Chair: Displaced refugees bused in from GTA

In 2023, a GTA shelter called the Salvation Army in Ajax to ask if they could provide food for refugees arriving here from Toronto. More than 200 asylum seekers arrived in Ajax in less than two weeks.

I know for a fact that people have been bused in from different locations

John Henry, Durham’s regional chair

2023 – Kamloops, BC – ASK Wellness Society relocates 25 in 1 year

Some social service providers in Kamloops already have programs to help cover the travel costs of people wanting to leave the city. Between April 1 and Aug. 31 of 2023, the ASK Wellness Society relocated 18 people, according to CEO Bob Hughes. From April 1, 2022 to March 21, 2023, 25 people were relocated.

In 2023, Kamloops Mayor Reid Hamer-Jackson proposed a motion to give bus or air travel vouchers to unhoused people who want to return home – something he promised during his election campaign in the fall. Funding would come out of the city’s $22,000 budget for catered meals.

2022 – Campbell River, BC – ‘no evidence’ people are being bused in

In 2022, Campbell River and District Coalition to End Homelessness (CRDCEH) surveys of people experiencing homelessness show that three-quarters of those responding “had lived in Campbell River anywhere between one year and their entire lives.” and almost 50% had lived in Campbell River for 10 years or more, showing that the majority of people living in Campbell River who are unsheltered have lived here for a significant amount of time.

2022 – London – Sends 319 individuals (out of 2,000) away after they arrived in London seeking supports

In October 2022, Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen asked civic administration if there was truth to stories he’s heard from “very reliable sources” that other municipalities are bussing people to London.

Coun. Stephen Turner responded: “It’s not been substantiated anywhere, it’s a rumour,” “It’s unethical for a municipality to do so. We would not do that, other municipalities would not do that.”

Coun. Fyfe-Millar believes there must be better communication between communities to address the crisis on the streets:

The piece I struggle with is when larger communities tend to send people here in the name of compassion, but without a plan.

Coun. John Fyfe-Millar

In 2023, Deputy Mayor of London Shawn Lewis provided data from the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) in a letter to fellow council members and alleged that dozens of people experiencing homelessness were sent to London against their will, or under false pretenses, by various individuals and organizations from outside London:

During the first six months of 2023, City of London staff has successfully diverted 319 individuals [out of 2,000 total] back to communities where they have a natural support network after having arrived in London seeking supports. That is how a compassionate system should function. However, of those 319 individuals, over 25% were sent here against their will, or under false pretenses, by various individuals and organizations from outside London. That represents almost one person every other day, and – it’s important to keep in mind – this is incomplete data. It does not represent those individuals who are not self-identifying as having been sent to London from another community.

I don’t think that it’s an organized effort on behalf of a municipal service provider, in any community, and I’m not even convinced that they’re intentionally trying to make the problem somebody else’s

I think in some cases, these may be organizations or individuals with really good intentions. But because they’re overwhelmed themselves, they may check a website, or do a quick Google search and say, ‘Oh, London has a lot of services, go to London, they can help you there,’ without doing the legwork to find out.

Shawn Lewis, Deputy Mayor of City of London in letter to council

2021 – Belleville Councillor: 69% of people at shelter were locals

In 2021, Councillor Kelly McCaw referred to data from Hastings County’s human services department, which had determined that in the 19 months ending June 30, 2021, only 69 per cent of the “guests” at the city’s Grace Inn homeless shelter were from Hastings County.

Neighbouring municipalities are actually delivering their homeless people to our region in hopes of accessing support such as at the Grace Inn

We should be getting a place for our own people before any other community and some of these people coming here are from across Canada

The City of Belleville used to do the same thing prior to Grace Inn, so this is not a new thing.

Councillor Kelly McCaw

In 2021, Napanee OPP had brought a man to the city, suggesting he use the warming centre in the former Belleville Police Station, but the man allegedly chose not to use the centre because of some of the rules in place there. The man froze to death soon after arrival on the vacant former Quinte Hotel site.

2020 – North Bay Councillor: southern Ontario sending the homeless

In 2020, North Bay city councillor Dave Mendicino says other municipalities give homeless people one-way bus tickets to North Bay to find services and shelters.

I get upset when I hear a social worker, again from southern Ontario, has put a homeless person on a bus without picking up the phone to ensure that person has services here

Dave Mendicino, North Bay Councillor

182 people were experiencing homelessness in 2018 in the entire Nipissing District.

2020 – New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development sent people to Moncton, NB

In March 2020, at least 6 people were given a one-way bus ticket by New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development. They arrived at the new shelter in Moncton from Miramichi, NB and other places across New Brunswick.

Outreach workers in the city say clients have been arriving in the city on one-way bus tickets unannounced, paid for by New Brunswick’s Department of Social Development.

“We have confirmed, even recently, that at least six of our new clients had been sent here to Moncton from various places within the province,” said Trevor Goodwin of YMCA Reconnect.

Source

NB Social Development said that if a client truly has no place to go in their own community, and a homeless shelter in another region has a bed available, it may help cover transportation costs.

However, outreach workers say no one should be sent without proper wraparound services to meet them on the other side. “I had no plan, nothing,” Cripps, one of people who took the bus said. “They just gave me the ticket and I came here.”

2019 – Peterborough says transfers happen, but are planned

In 2019, Dorothy Oliver, program manager, homelessness and addictions services with the City of Peterborough’s social services division says transferring people between two municipalities, so people can reconnect with their roots in a particular community, is something that happens. Though when it happens it’s usually planned out. While there has been times when it hasn’t been planned, Social Services has gotten in touch with organizations to make sure any future transfers are purposeful.

Data in Peterborough’s 2021 Point in Time (PiT) count done by done by United Way Peterborough and District shows no evidence of a mass influx of homeless migrants.

What does the OPP do?

In 2019, Const. Joe Ayotte stated “We do not participate in that program at all,” he says. At the most, if someone is walking around on a highway, police will take them to the closest location, like a Tim Hortons, but otherwise officers don’t give people bus tickets or take them to Peterborough.

2016 – Saskatchewan social services sends 2 to BC

In 2016, Saskatchewan social services ministry paid about $500 for the two one-way bus tickets from Saskatchewan to B.C.

Regulations require a case plan be established by workers and clients before transportation be provided.

When asked if they had a place to go, the answer was ‘Yeah,’” “You know, I was going to the next homeless shelter anyway.” “I asked for a ticket and five minutes later I had it printed off and I was leaving that night,”

I have had a conversation with Social Services Deputy Minister Greg Miller regarding reports that two young men were given bus tickets for out of province destinations by Social Service workers.

I reaffirmed to the Deputy Minister that regulations require a case plan be established by workers and clients before transportation be provided. The Deputy Minister is also reviewing if case plans were in place for these individuals and he will be reminding front line workers that clients should have a plan in place before they are given bus tickets for destinations away.

Donna Harpauer, Social Services Minister

1999 – Toronto gives out 100 tickets

In 1999, Project Going Home gave tickets to about 100 people, about two-thirds of which going back to other provinces, a few are being flown overseas. City officials insisted no one is being forced to leave Toronto and that they’ll only be sent home if they have a place to stay or a job.

Widely practiced in the US

Since April 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s program has sent an estimated 80,000 immigrant passengers in buses to Democratic-led cities: Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles in protest of President Joe Biden’s border policies, sometimes mocking those cities’ leaders for saying they welcome immigrants and criticizing the Biden administration’s policies on immigration. He has also strung up razor wire on the border and installed buoy barriers on the Rio Grande. In December 2023, he sent a flight of 120 migrants to Chicago in an escalation of his busing operation.

In 2017, The Guardian’s 18-month investigation “Bussed out” compiled a database of around 34,240 relocation journeys.

It found that American cities have been offering homeless people free bus tickets to relocate for decades, costing the public millions of dollars.

Between 2005 and 2016, San Francisco provided nearly 10,000 homeless residents Greyhound bus tickets – also a $10 per travel day allowance for food – to cities across the United States under Homeward Bound, the bus ticket home program. Sarasota, FL offered one-way bus tickets in 2014.

How to find out if your community has a homeless relocation program

You can find out if your community has a formalized program by asking for it in a Freedom of Information request to:

  • Local police service
  • Municipality

I’d recommend filing 2 requests

  1. Asking for any policy related to moving homeless people to other municipalities.
  2. Asking for any and all information about incidents where homeless people have been moved to another municipality.

If you do this, please let us know what you find out so we can add it to this page for others to refer to.

Template

To whom it may concern,

This is a request under this jurisdiction’s freedom of information legislation for records held by [institution].

I request any and all information associated with [policies related to moving homeless people to other municipalities/incidents where homeless people have been moved to another municipality] between [start date] and [end date] including, but not limited to, the tracking document(s) and expenses for each and every incident.

Please provide a machine-readable, itemized database, spreadsheet or dump/export (e.g. Microsoft Excel, Access, SQL or CSV file format, not PDF).

I would like this information sent electronically.

[Your Name]
[Your Address]
[Your Phone Number]
[Your Email]

Open Council commentary: how should it work?

Continuing to put somebody on a bus and sending them somewhere else is one great big circle of futility and not a way to end homelessness in anybody’s life. Doing so against their will, or under false pretenses, is wrong.

Transfers should be done in cases where an individual is unable to be admitted to a shelter include not following the rules, possession of weapons, violent behaviour or more. At a minimum, both sides should have a plan, not just the client.

A baseline level of support should be coordinated and agreed upon by all major cities in Ontario, so that cities that offer better services aren’t punished for doing so, while municipalities providing levels of service below requirements or expectations save money.

A centralized registry or database could help service providers find municipalities with available services and help people find and access services more efficiently.

Sources

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