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Seattle homelessness: Dissecting the great bus ticket conspiracy

A pair of feet stick out from a seat as a Greyhound bus. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images for Fortune Magazine)

Every few months, it happens. Allegations swirl about people experiencing homelessness given bus tickets to the Seattle area — the homeless promise land, “Freeattle,” where anyone can live on the street trouble free with services as grand as Mount Rainier. It’s a great bus ticket conspiracy and Seattle is the target.

For example, Seattle Councilmember Sally Bagshaw alleged in 2018 that the cities of SeaTac and Tukwila were busing people into Seattle for the city’s social services, adding to the growing homeless population. SeaTac and Tukwila have refuted this claim, however. More recently, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan threw shade at Federal Way for busing homeless into the city. Federal Way has also denied this, and the situation had more to do with Seattle’s warming shelters amid the winter snow storm.

Timeline: Understanding Seattle homelessness
Results from the 2019 King County homeless count

It’s not just cities around Puget Sound. Allegations of homeless individuals coming to town by planes, trains, or automobiles are common. In 2017, The Guardian investigated 18 months worth of interstate homeless bus tickets and indeed found a few headed to Seattle. But also Portland, New York, Reno, and many others.

While a conspiracy isn’t likely, there are programs across the country supplying people with tickets out of town — including the Seattle area. The truth of these programs involves less underhanded scheming and a bit more context.

“Any community that I have worked in, or worked with people that are working to address homelessness, this is something that people hear,” said Lauren McGowan with United Way of King County. “There is always a rumor that people are being transported to a specific community or coming to a community for various resources. I can tell you that traveling to another community when you are homeless, looking for homeless resources, would be a terrible strategy.”

The bus ticket conspiracy

This bus ticket urban legend is not unique. In fact, many cities believe they are so special that homeless individuals, and other cities, are targeting them. Daniel Walters, reporter with the Inlander, has heard similar rhetoric as Spokane deals with its own portion of the homelessness crisis.

“For a long time there have been these rumors about other cities paying for homeless people to come to Spokane, basically helping homeless people in their community leave their community and come to Spokane,” Walters said.

Seattle has become a major talking point for Spokane candidates
Spokane is trying to attract unhappy Seattleites looking to flee

For example, Spokane Mayoral Candidate Nadine Woodward tweeted in April, hinting at such a claim.

But when Walters researched rumors for an article published in The Inlander, he discovered even more speculation. He reached out to Billings Mayor Bill Cole about that bus ticket.

“He just sort of started laughing,” Walters said of Mayor Cole. “Like it’s the most absurd thing he’s heard in his life, sort of thing. But again, it seemed familiar because he’s heard that rumor, too. He’s heard that Bozeman was sending people (to Billings).”

“….These are rumors, but the people who are claiming that other communities are busing people to Spokane, Portland and Seattle are the two most common ones that you hear about,” he said.

Walters doesn’t doubt that people get tickets to Spokane. He believes the woman in Woodward’s tweet is telling the truth. How it is happening is another issue.

“Maybe the way people are envisioning this happening, these mustache-twirling mayors in other cities trying to get rid of their problem by sending it elsewhere, maybe that’s not the primary driver of this,” he said. “Maybe there are people that are coming because they are trying to get back home. In a lot of cases, that’s the situation.”

Seattle, King County, and bus tickets

Walter’s article points to bus ticket programs in a variety of cities from Olympia to Salt Lake City. Seattle included. But he says he couldn’t find evidence of “big busloads of people being sent cynically by cities as a way to remove the problem.”

“But I found a lot of programs across the country that were trying to help people connect with friends and family back home,” Walters said. “That seemed to be the biggest way that happened on a large scale. I found out, too, that Spokane was doing this. In some case they would help somebody in Spokane get to Seattle, or somebody in Spokane get to Phoenix. But they check to make sure somebody was at the other end to help them out.”

Or in some random cases, a Seattle police officer will spend his own money to reunite a homeless individual with family in another area. As MyNorthwest reported in 2015, Seattle Detective Scotty Bach said he paid for a plane ticket to Phoenix. More often, these programs are funded and organized by charities and nonprofits. They generally confirm that there are family or friends in another city who can provide housing and support.

“I think every reputable organization, whether it’s through government-funding or philanthropic dollars, is using a similar criteria as us – to make sure there is support on the back side,” said McGowan with United Way of King County, one organization in the Seattle area that provides tickets to people experiencing homelessness as part of its Streets to Home program. “If and when that doesn’t happen and somebody ends up in our community, our job is to be responsive. We are one nation and we need to do everything we can to support people.”

In 2018, The United Way of King County helped about 1,800 people experiencing homelessness. About 6 percent of those people were reunited with support outside of Washington with the help of a plane, train, or bus. Out of the $2 million program, McGowan said, it cost about $30,000 to pay for the tickets.

Seattle police officers spending their own money on homeless crisis

The city of Seattle partners with King County for its own a diversion program. The program is designed to assist people fleeing domestic violence, handle first and last month’s rent, or pay for a hotel room. In some cases, it also pays for a ticket to another city.

“This also could take the form of arranging transportation to family and friends in another community (reunification) — however service providers work to ensure that it’s a suitable and realistic option for both parties involved,” said Will Lemke with the city of Seattle. “The idea is to get folks connected to services, case managers, family and friends to find short-term solutions that prevent or end long-term homelessness.”

Beyond the city, county, and the United Way, there is a range of other organizations in the region that will help reunite people experiencing homelessness with a family member or a friend in another city. Collectively, it resembles very little of a grand scheme, packing buses with homeless people, perpetrated by “mustache-twirling mayors.” And it seems that any city’s services are not as much of a motivating factor. A support system, however, is.

“When you think about why people experience homelessness, it’s because of deep poverty, it’s because of a lack of social support,” she said. “One of the best things you can do is reunite people with a supportive network, a friend, a family member that can support them through a transition.”

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