Even watered down, this is still a bad policy.
Even watered down, this is still a bad policy. MILOS-MULLER/GETTY

Back in September King County Council Member Reagan Dunn proposed spending $1 million on a program called "Homeward Bound." Aside from weirdly associating the plight of the homeless with the plight of three domesticated animals featured in a Disney film from the early 1990s, "Homeward Bound" would have funded an effort to find homeless people and give willing participants a bus ticket back to their families, so long as their families didn't live in King County or in the surrounding counties. Bussing policies like this one are bad because they typically just move the homeless problem around, dumping people into smaller towns where they're even less likely to find the housing and services they need to escape homelessness.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday the council funded a watered-down version of the proposal as a proviso in their supplementary budget. The new version directs $100,000 for "family reunification services for homeless individuals," which includes marketing money and "ground transportation options," which is to say bus tickets. The new language doesn't limit the homeless person's final destination to places outside of King County and the surrounding counties, and it also directs the executive to conduct and file a report on the program's outcomes in October 2020.

King County Council Member Rod Dembowski was the only member who spoke against an amendment specifying that the money is used for bus tickets. Over the phone, he said he "fundamentally and philosophically" disagreed with Dunn's original proposal, which, for him, fed into Washington's "long and sad tradition of sending away undesirable people."

Though Dembowski was encouraged by Dunn's decision to reframe the program as a "family reunification" effort rather than a GTFO effort, he still thought the $100,000 would be put to better use by Mary's Place or another shelter, so he ended up voting against it.

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In an email, Michele Meaker, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Eastside, agreed with Dembowski. "Renovating existing underutilized buildings, investing in mental health resources to treat the root problems is a better start than pushing our problems off to another underprepared city or state," she wrote.

Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who wasn't particularly supportive of Dunn's initial proposal, nevertheless signed off on it because "it's totally voluntary, and it really just extends what the county is already doing" in other programs. The county currently spends $37,000 on "family reunification strategies, including transportation costs," according to Dunn's original proposal.

As I wrote back in September, Dunn argues that there is "a substantial demand" for the program considering the fact that 9% of respondents to All Home's point-in-time count said "family reunification services" would help get them into housing. That works out to about 1,125 people. To the extent that the county can ensure that its bus tickets will go to people who will be welcomely housed upon their return, spending money on bus tickets seems fine. But Dunn shouldn't be pretending that he's addressing one of the "core needs of homeless populations," when he's only addressing a problem on the margins of the crisis. According to that same Point-in-Time count, 75% of respondents cited “rental assistance/affordable housing” as the thing they need to obtain housing. The county should spend its money housing and sheltering the homeless, not consolidating and expanding a program dedicated to shipping them away.

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