For many experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, reunification with family can be the key successfully ending their personal struggles with homelessness. Homeward Bound, launched in 2005, is based on this premise and as part of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH), the program seeks to connect people with their personal support network, whether its ties to family, friends, or community.

As COVID-19 has starkly demonstrated, when navigating through a crisis, being close to a support network of family and friends is often the best option. Given the current climate, Homeward Bound has seen an increase in the number of unsheltered people unexpectedly stranded in San Francisco. Some wish to return to their hometowns and to the family and network support they rely on. Homeward Bound is designed to help reunite homeless individuals living in San Francisco with family and friends willing and able to offer ongoing support to end their cycle of homelessness

Homeward Bound is for anyone: individuals, couples, and families needing support getting to hometown locations anywhere in the contiguous United States. The program meets people where they are and maintains a low barrier to entry. As COVID19 forced the closure of social services offices and eliminated the typical face-to-face program enrollment process, the Homeward Bound team addressed the community need with a newly launched online digital form at https://hsh.sfgov.org/services/problem-solving/homeward-bound/. The surprising outcome? People were self-advocating and making their own referrals. Even with less available support from hospitals and case workers, people experiencing homelessness continued to seek ways to get back to hometowns and family. What starts with a call or email, often ends with a Greyhound bus ticket home.

Through the Homeward Bound Program, HSH can provide bus tickets home to individuals who are:

  1. homeless/low income and living in San Francisco; and
  2. have family or friends at the destination that Homeward Bound staff can verify as willing and able to provide a place to stay and ongoing support; and
  3. are medically stable enough to travel unassisted to the destination; and
  4. are sober and able to abstain from alcohol or using other substances en route.

Tanya* a mother escaping domestic violence with two young children came to San Francisco seeking a better life. She and her children spent five months at the Hamilton Family Shelter. Overwhelmed and struggling, she reached out to her mother in Georgia, who in turn contacted Homeward Bound for help. In a matter of days, Homeward Bound was able to get Tanya and her children safely on a Greyhound bus home to Georgia. Tanya called her Homeward Bound case manager from every state until she was reunited with her grateful mother. Once a client is reunited with friends, family or loved ones, Homeward Bound follows-up with phone calls and outreach.

As part of the Problem Solving component of HSH’s comprehensive Homeless Response System, Homeward Bound plays a critical role in fulfilling the department’s mission to make homelessness rare, brief and one time. By intersecting with individuals and families experiencing homelessness at the point they are seeking guidance or assistance, homelessness is often diverted or prevented. To date, more than 11,000 clients have been served by the Homeward Bound program.

We are the bridge between the client and loved ones in helping people get back home,” says Isaac Foster, longtime Homeward Bound case manager. “It’s all about relationships and building trust in a short amount of time.”

Working on the front-lines, the Homeward Bound team is prepared to meet this moment with care and compassion and to facilitate increasing numbers of reunifications and exits from homelessness as San Francisco continues to address the ongoing COVID crisis.

San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing
Abigail Stewart-Kahn is the Interim Director of San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. She and her family live, work and attend school in San Francisco and consider themselves committed residents of the City. https://hsh.sfgov.org/about/leadership/

Through the provision of coordinated, compassionate, and high‐quality services, we strive to make homelessness in San Francisco rare, brief, and one time.

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