posted December 28, 2012 01:05 PM
They are flown to Paris ($6,332), Orlando ($858.40), Johannesburg ($2,550.70), or most frequently, San Juan ($484.20).
They are not executives on business trips or couples on honeymoons. Rather, all are families who have ended up homeless, and all the plane tickets are courtesy of the city of New York (one-way).
The Bloomberg administration, which has struggled with a seemingly intractable problem of homelessness for years, has paid for more than 550 families to leave the city since 2007, as a way of keeping them out of the expensive shelter system, which costs $36,000 a year per family. All it takes is for a relative elsewhere to agree to take the family in.
Many of them are longtime New Yorkers who have come upon hard times, arrive at the shelter’s doorstep and jump at the offer to move at no cost. Others are recent arrivals who are happy to return home after becoming discouraged by the city’s noise, the mazelike subway, the difficult job market or the high cost of housing.
“I didn’t expect the city to be the way it is,” said Hector Correa, who was in a homeless shelter last week and flew home to Puerto Rico on Tuesday. “I was expecting something different, something better.”
Mr. Correa and his companion, Elisabeth Mojica, and their two young sons, both also named Hector, arrived in New York in May to live with his mother. But after they failed to find jobs and the bills began to mount, his mother threatened to kick them out. Out of cash, they checked into the city intake center for homeless families in the Bronx.
“The person I spoke to in the shelter informed me that if I have a person I could stay with in Puerto Rico, that I could get help to go,” said Mr. Correa, who worked as a mechanic in Carolina, on the north shore of the island. They will stay with Ms. Mojica’s father. “I feel very happy because I’m going to be able to get back to do the things that I know how to do,” he said.
At the intake center, social workers ask families about their housing options in other places. If a family says that they have relatives who might be willing to take them in, and social workers confirm their report, the family could be on a plane, bus or train within hours, although the city will sometimes wait a few days to avoid the expense of last-minute fares. The Correas flew to San Juan for less than $1,000.
The city, which spends $500,000 a year on the program, employs a local travel agency, Austin Travel, to book one-way tickets for domestic trips. Department of Homeless Services employees do all the planning for international travel.
City officials said there were no limits on where a family can be sent, and families can reject the offer and stay in city shelters. So far, families have been sent to 24 states and 5 continents, most often to Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
“We want to divert as many families as we can that need assistance,” said Vida Chavez-Downes, the director of the Resource Room, a city office with 11 social workers, two managers and an administrative assistant who help relocate families. “We have paid for visas, we’ve gone down to the consulate, we’ve provided letters, we’ve paid for passports for people to go. Anyone who comes through our door.”
One family with 10 children accepted an offer to go to Puerto Rico on a nonstop JetBlue flight. An adventurous but ultimately unlucky Michigan couple drove to the city in search of jobs and a new life. They got $400 in gas cards to drive back.
One set of parents agreed to move to France with their three children to be with the mother’s family. The $6,332 travel cost included five plane tickets to Paris and five train tickets to the town of Granville, in the northwest.
In the past, the city contracted with the Salvation Army for a now-defunct program called Homeward Bound, but only for single adults and couples, not families with children. Both versions followed the example of Travelers Aid, a 150-year-old nonprofit organization that provides stranded and homeless people emergency aid so they could return to their homes, and which still exists today. Other cities have experimented with similar programs, but they are largely focused on adults without children.
The Hawaii Legislature recently rejected a plan to send homeless people on one-way flights to live with relatives on the mainland, because of the cost.
Once a family leaves New York, homeless services officials say they follow up with a phone call to make sure they arrive safely, then make a few more calls over the next two to three weeks. In rare cases, they will advance the family up to four months’ rent, a one-month security deposit, a furniture allowance and a broker’s fee.
City officials said that none of the families that have been relocated have returned to city shelters.
The program fails to address the underlying problems that brought the families here in the first place, said Arnold S. Cohen, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for the Homeless, an advocacy group in New York.
“The city is engaged in cosmetics,” Mr. Cohen said. “What we’re doing is passing the problem of homelessness to another city. We’re taking people from a shelter bed here to the living room couch of another family. Essentially, this family is still homeless.”
Sometimes the journey to and from New York is quick. Justin Little and Eugenia Martin, both 20, owed back rent on their apartment in Fayetteville, N.C., so they came to New York on Saturday with their 5-month-old, Inez. They planned to stay in shelters while they looked for jobs, and went straight to the intake center.
Then relatives of Mr. Little, who worked at a telephone center serving insurance customers, scraped up enough money to pay their back rent, and homeless services workers confirmed that his mother would be around to help. By Monday night, they were waiting outside Gate 73 at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to board their 7:15 p.m. Greyhound to Greensboro.
“We were going to come here and then find work, you know, because there’s always work in New York,” Ms. Martin said, as Inez bounced on her knee.
Mr. Little said, “Once we found out we could keep our apartment, there was no point in staying here, because I can go back to my job in North Carolina.”