Back in April, mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward tweeted a photo of herself with a homeless woman at a local warming shelter, telling her Twitter followers that the woman had been given a ticket from city officials in Billings, Montana.
"I've talked to homeless and shelters who say they were given bus tickets to Spokane," Woodward wrote. "Billings was the first MT city I had heard about. But, also Eastern OR and northern CA."
Woodward warned that "the more resources the city offers, more homeless will be sent here and come here."
Woodward isn't the only mayoral candidate to raise that fear. On his own mayoral campaign website, Shawn Poole condemns transients "who have been given a 1-way bus ticket for the sole purpose of getting 'FREE' handouts."
When contacted by the Inlander about Woodward's Twitter post, however, Billings Mayor Bill Cole scoffed. No, he says, Billings city officials weren't buying bus tickets to send homeless people to Spokane. Ironically, he notes, over in Montana he hears people, without evidence, blame the city of Bozeman for shipping homeless people to Billings.
"Every city has this rumor or urban legend," Cole says. "We all think we're victims and this is the municipal version of that."
Yet these rumors weren't just invented from thin air. Donald Warriner, of the Salvation Army in Billings, says that about once a month, the agency assists a homeless person's move to another community — but only if the Salvation Army can confirm the client has friends, family or a job waiting at the next destination.
"It's a last resort," Warriner says. "We don't just ship them someplace else to ship our problems someplace else."
Those sentiments were echoed at homeless relocation programs the Inlander talked to across the West, including Portland, Seattle, Olympia, Boise, Pullman and Salt Lake City. They might help homeless people get bus tickets — not because those cities have more services, but because that's where a client might have a parent willing to house them or friend who can help them get a job.
And Spokane does it, too. In fact, a local group is starting a new program to provide homeless people with bus tickets more often.
"This is for those people who don't believe other cities send their homeless to Spokane," Poole wrote on a widely shared Facebook post last week. "Portland originally started this program in 2016 and it continues today."
Poole linked to a 2016 Portland TV newscast detailing how the first client of a new Portland-funded program was given a Greyhound bus ticket to Spokane.
Yet, data obtained by the Inlander shows that of the 941 Portland-area clients given tickets through TicketHome program in the past four years, a grand total of three candidates were sent to Spokane. Instead of relocating homeless people to communities with more services, the TicketHome program just as often sent people to small rural communities, like Ephrata, Clarkston and Coulee Dam.
"For us, it's about getting someone into housing," says Denis Theriault, a Portland and Multnomah County spokesman. "This is a way to help them get to housing, get to stability."
It's similar in Salt Lake City, where a program called the Road Home isn't trying to send homeless people to a city with more shelter space — they're trying to send people to a place where they don't need shelter. In the past year, Road Home helped one couple and one individual travel to Spokane — and in both cases, they had families and jobs waiting for them.
And so while Downtown Spokane Partnership President Mark Richard has been alarmed about the impact of homelessness on downtown, he doesn't think Spokane should have a problem with these programs.
"If a community or nonprofit is willing to reunite a person with a more stable environment, who could possibly object to that?" Richard says. "That's the most humane and holistic approach that I can think of."
But in many communities, these programs are controversial, disparaged as "Greyhound therapy."
Most programs don't check with the clients they've helped relocate to see if they've landed on their feet. Portland is an exception. But recently their TicketHome program was only able to contact 39 percent of their clients three months after their relocation, and of those, only 61 percent were still in housing.
Chronic homelessness is often intertwined with mental illness and addiction, and for many homeless individuals the bridges back home may already be burned.
During Spokane's recent homeless count, 160 of the homeless people surveyed cited either "family conflict" or "domestic violence" as their primary reason for homelessness — more than drugs and alcohol combined.
Rebecca Congrove, an older homeless woman in a wheelchair outside the downtown Spokane Starbucks Friday night, asks the Inlander to identify her by her maiden name. She says a Florida agency — she doesn't remember which one — helped her pay for a bus ticket to Washington state a few years ago. But her plans to stay with her granddaughter fell through.
Today, she says, her health is failing. She says she's been hoping to get an airline ticket to Ohio.
"I have nothing to protect myself outside," Congrove says. "I'm scared to death. I don't sleep. I have friends in Ohio."
Even if these programs try to avoid sending people to be homeless somewhere else, that's often the result.
The limited data available suggests that the number of homeless people coming to Spokane via any given bus-ticket program appears to be small. A 2017 Guardian exposé tallied over 21,000 homeless relocation journeys emanating from 16 different cities and counties across six years — but the Guardian's map suggests less than 50 of those journeys ended up in Spokane.
But that data is incomplete. And even if we had an idea of how many homeless people were coming to Spokane, that would only be one-half of the equation. It doesn't take into account the homeless people that Spokane helps send elsewhere.
Suzann Calvert, a homeless woman standing outside downtown's House of Charity shelter, says she's been homeless for about five years. And in all that time, she's never heard of homeless people trying to get a bus ticket to come to Spokane. But she says her boyfriend, who's also homeless, has been trying to get a ticket back to his family in Vancouver.
"Nobody's trying to come here," she says with a wry laugh. "From what I know, everyone's trying to get the f—- out."
And sometimes, Catholic Charities helps with precisely that. Last year, Catholic Charities' Travelers Aid program provided assistance to 103 people who needed gas money, plane tickets or bus tickets to leave Spokane and return to a place where friends, family or a job were waiting.
In March, according to Catholic Charities' records, a man came to Spokane because his baby was in the hospital. After his baby died, Travelers Aid helped him get a Greyhound ticket to his brother's place in Pennsylvania. Another guy said he'd been beaten up multiple times while sleeping on the streets in Spokane and was terrified to spend another night without shelter. A bus ticket helped him return to his brother in Arizona.
The program, supported by donations from local churches, will only fund half the ticket and is generally capped at $75. By asking the travelers to put some skin in the game, the theory goes, they'll have more stake in the outcome.
"I don't want to pretend like I'm working miracles," says Catholic Charities' Scott Cooper, who helps run the program. "Whatever challenges you have in your life are going to get on the bus with you."
And soon, Travelers Aid will be joined by another program. Local volunteers Julie Garcia and Jason Green are launching a program called "Forget-Me-Not," inspired by a homeless relocation program in Anchorage, Alaska.
Richard, of the Downtown Spokane Partnership, helped them find private funding for the effort.
Like other programs, Green and Garcia say they'll connect homeless people with family members or friends in other cities. But their help won't stop when the bus door closes. They'll give them a disposable phone, and then contact them at 30, 60 and 90 days. If the client ends up back on the street, Green says, Forget-Me-Not will help connect them with support in their new city. In some cases, they might even pay for a ticket back to Spokane.
"If they're stuck in a city that had no services, then [we] won't just leave them there," Green says.
GIVE ME YOUR HUDDLED MASSES
The bus ticket debate, meanwhile, is a symbol of a larger, thornier issue. While most of the homeless people in Spokane are homegrown, there's still a significant portion who are from elsewhere. Of those who had their zip code entered into Spokane's homeless information database last year, around 30 percent last had permanent housing outside Spokane County.
Mayoral candidates like Woodward, Poole and Kelly Cruz worry that the more social services Spokane offers, the more the city will draw in needy people from outside the area.
"We've got this message out to the rest of the world," Cruz says. "Spokane has a lot of free stuff and you don't have to do anything for it."
But according to the city's admittedly incomplete data, only a fraction of homeless people coming to Spokane say they've come for the social services. And sometimes, it's less about feasts in Spokane as it is about famine elsewhere.
At times, law enforcement officers in Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake transport homeless people at risk of freezing to death to downtown Spokane warming centers. Similarly, when the North Idaho Crisis Center discharges a homeless person, and the Coeur d'Alene shelters are full, they sometimes pay for a taxi to a shelter in Spokane.
Mayoral candidate Jonathan Bingle draws a comparison to the words welcoming immigrants at the base of the Statue of Liberty: It's OK if Spokane attracts huddled masses from across the region, he argues, but first we need the infrastructure to handle it.
And City Council President Ben Stuckart, yet another mayoral candidate, says fretting about where homeless people are coming from misses the point.
"If you see someone drowning, you don't ask where they're from. You don't say, 'We're only going to rescue people from Spokane,'" Stuckart says. "When they're drowning, you take care of them to the best of your ability." ♦