It sounds like a conspiracy: that the city of Denver puts homeless people on buses bound for other parts of the country to reduce its overall homeless population.
Here at Westword, we occasionally hear claims to that effect — that there is some deliberate, top-down effort to bus Denver’s homeless out of sight and out of mind. Based on conversations with people living on the street, however, the idea that Denver is busing away homeless people so that other cities have to deal with them always seemed like a myth, or at least an overblown claim.
So we were surprised to read The Guardian’s report on an eighteen-month-long investigation of how cities across the nation bus homeless residents out of their jurisdictions that mentions “officials running a program in Denver.” The lengthy piece also elaborates on how cities save significant resources by purchasing one-way bus tickets for their homeless.
We reached out to Julie Smith, communications director with Denver Human Services, to find out about Denver’s particular bus program.
It turns out that Denver does have a busing program, but it is neither robust nor conspiratorial. Rather, its goal is to reunite homeless individuals with family members in other states.
The Family Reunification Program provides qualifying applicants with one-way bus tickets out of Denver. According to an email from Smith, “it is a fairly small program with annual expenditures of about $30k or less and serves around 130 people/families.”
(Note: This program is different than the one in which buses shuttle people between downtown Denver and the city’s overflow shelter near Aurora. That program was explored in our February 2016 cover story, “End of the Road.”)
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A key aspect of the Family Reunification Program is that bus-ticket recipients must prove that they have family or a support group waiting for them at their destination. When applying — at Denver Human Services locations or through the Denver Street Outreach Collaborative — prospective bus-riders provide contact information for their support person(s), and a DHS caseworker then vets the provided contact to ensure that the person bused out of Denver will be housed and supported. The program will only provide one one-way bus ticket to an applicant. That way, it avoids becoming a subsidized, back-and-forth travel service.
Since the program began in 2011, Denver has purchased approximately 600 one-way tickets to the tune of $150,000.
Smith says that she’s seen some of the success stories associated with the program firsthand. “Last year, I met a woman whose family was getting assistance through the program. She told myself and another shelter guest that her husband had family in another state and that he’d secured a job with his brother once they arrived back home,” she wrote. “She was excited to get a fresh start and to hopefully end her episode of homelessness for good.”