Jeff Sheridan

PORTLAND'S FAST-EVOLVING quest to end homelessness got a new frontier last week: the bus depot.

In a move that seemed to emerge from thin air, Portland City Council on March 16 earmarked $30,000 to buy homeless Portlanders bus or plane tickets out of town—provided they can prove they've got family, job prospects, or other support elsewhere.

Formally called the "Reunification/Transportation Services Program," the proposal popped up in a last-minute amendment to an emergency request for $2.75 million aimed at slowing the city's homelessness crisis.

And the plan received little scrutiny, which was a bit surprising. Similar programs—sometimes derisively dubbed "Greyhound therapy"—have been controversial in other parts of the country hoping to scrub their streets of homelessness.

In part, the lack of concern was because Portland says its effort has pure intentions, a sentiment homeless advocates agree with. Officials with the Portland Housing Bureau (PHB) vowed at the hearing that the program would be a compassionate means of assisting people who are seeking a way to reunite with loved ones, and not a plot to empty the streets by herding people onto buses.

According to planning documents [pdf] and conversations with housing officials, the plan is modeled largely after a San Francisco project called Homeward Bound. It would require service providers who receive the new funding to confirm a homeless person has a place to stay in another town, and make sure people are stable enough to travel. It's also voluntary.

"It's very straightforward," says PHB Director Kurt Creager. "We want to... make some money available to folks who have some connection to another community but are out here, stuck."

Portland officials estimate that's a lot of people. The $30,000 city council approved last week is only designed to last for three months. In next year's budget, which begins July 1, the effort could see another $195,000 to send 500 people to other cities. That's 13 percent of the 3,801 people that a 2015 count estimated are homeless in Multnomah County.

And the new transportation program is mulling over one potentially controversial element that wasn't raised last week: Spending between $2,000 and $5,000 on a "biometric/fingerprinting system," which would track people's usage of the program and ensure they didn't attempt to double-dip.

That possibility came out of A Home for Everyone, the coalition of government officials, social services providers, and homeless advocates that's been developing a plan for reducing Portland's homeless numbers. But several coalition members the Mercury spoke with hadn't heard about the fingerprinting possibility.

Two city commissioners who support the travel program, Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish, also hadn't been told of the possibility of biometric tracking.

"I'll look into that," Fritz said.

The specter of tracking homeless Portlanders' use of the ticketing program via fingerprint scans gave pause to those the Mercury talked to, all of whom said they'd want to know more about the intent of such tracking and the uses of any data collected.

"It does raise some concerns about where that database is going," says Eric Tars, a senior attorney at the Washington, DC-based National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. "Is it being shared with the police? How long are those retained?"

"This is where the details of the program become important," says Shannon Singleton, executive director of the homeless outreach operation JOIN. Singleton, whose organization has provided occasional tickets to homeless clients for years, says there are ways to ensure people aren't returning to re-use the program without tracking their fingerprints.

For its part, the PHB downplays the possibility of fingerprinting—even though it appears, with cost estimates, on a planning document that informed the bureau's current budget request.

"We haven't talked about doing that locally," says Sally Erickson, who heads up homelessness prevention for the housing bureau. "We included a reference to biometric system/equipment since this is how San Francisco tracks usage for their program."

In fact, San Francisco's Homeward Bound program does nothing of the sort, according to Scott Walton, a manager at the city's Human Services Agency. Walton says that while some shelters in the city's system of care employ fingerprinting, Homeward Bound does not.

In any case, the housing bureau says it's too soon to say whether fingerprinting will be used. "The bottom line is that we don't want to turn someone away because they don't have ID and we also want measures in place to ensure that no one is accessing the funds more than once a year," housing bureau spokesperson Martha Calhoon tells the Mercury.

There's another big question that advocates ask about programs like Homeward Bound: Do they actually work?

A proposal for Portland's effort calls it "a cost-effective strategy to assist individuals who wish to return back to their family or other support system and serves to divert individuals from our shelter system and/or prevent them from remaining homeless."

It's that last bit that people like Tars, the DC-based attorney, question. Tars says he's never seen definitive proof that programs like Homeward Bound actually get people out of homelessness. Too often, they don't have a requirement that social services providers follow up to ensure that homeless people have actually benefited.

"In many cases, communities cannot even confirm whether the individuals made it to their ticketed destination," Tars writes. "Taxpayers should be entitled to know if their tax dollars are being used effectively—and 'effectively' must be defined as effective for the homeless individuals, not just effective in shipping a homeless person out of the immediate community."

Calhoon says it's possible the city will require follow-up calls, but a decision hasn't been made. Singleton, of JOIN, believes they should be mandatory.

In years of offering up bus tickets as a case worker for the homeless, Singleton says she always kept in contact to see how people were faring, and that it helped.

"They know that someone still cares, and they're still connected," she says. More often than not, she notes, the results were encouraging. "A lot of folks had moved out of the family house or gotten jobs."