For more than three decades, cities have used bussing programs as a cheap and quick solution to homelessness, sending people out of town with one-way tickets, ostensibly to permanent housing with family or friends. But the long-term impact of these programs has never been assessed, and cities tout them as an “exit” from homelessness without compelling evidence that this is so.
In an 18-month investigation, the Guardian conducted the first detailed analysis of America’s homeless relocation programs, compiling a database of around 34,240 journeys and analyzing their effect on cities and the travelers, and producing a stunning interactive that has received industry-wide acclaim. It was created by a team of 18 journalists, film-makers and data visualizers.
This was data journalism at its most exhaustive. To determine which cities have programs, reporters contacted officials in the 25 largest US cities and searched for references to programs in archives from the early 1980s onwards. After submitting dozens of public records requests, they received data from 16 cities and counties. But the story was incomplete without the words of the homeless travellers themselves.
Reporters attempted to contact 1,000 bus-ticket recipients listed in the records, searching for contact details in the Nexis database and sending messages on Facebook. In addition, reporters in New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Key West, Reno and San Juan spent several days visiting shelters and homeless encampments. City officials were reluctant to introduce reporters to homeless people embarking on journeys, so two reporters waited outside San Francisco’s bussing office several days a week over a period of a month in order to meet ticket applicants.
The findings were dramatic. While there were cases in which a journey could be transformative and even life-saving, leading someone out of homelessness, this was not the whole story. People were routinely sent thousands of miles away after only a cursory check by authorities to establish they had a suitable place to stay once they got there. Some said they felt pressured into taking tickets, and others described ending up on the streets within weeks of their arrival.
Data visualization experts have recognized the game-changing nature of the piece. Patrick Stotz, of Spiegel Online, described the work as a “masterpiece”, while James Cheshire, from the University College London, said it was “absolutely stunning”. It is a seamless melding of long-form journalism and explanatory visualizations that propel the story and make the issues uniquely comprehensible.
“Bussed Out” won plaudits from the PBS NewsHour, NPR and other outlets. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Leilani Farha, called it “a devastating read in so many ways”. Numerous journalists and academics have asked to share the Guardian’s bussing dataset.