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A homeless man sleeps under a sleeping bag as Homeless Outreach employee Dustin Francis checks on him along Manhattan's Franklin Roosevelt Drive in New York .

Homelessness has always been a source of vexation for the political leaders of New York, the dark side of the promise that has lured millions of people here over the years in search of prosperity.

Former mayor Ed Koch tried to buy the Gibber Hotel in the Catskill Mountains during the late 1980s, in an ill-fated attempt to ship 600 homeless men out of Manhattan. When Rudy Giuliani ruled the city, he took a tougher approach, using police sweeps to arrest some of the homeless and force others into shelters. Now it is Michael Bloomberg's turn to get creative.

Stymied in his attempt to convert a Bronx jail into a shelter, and faced with a homelessness crisis that has been exacerbated by the economic downturn, Mayor Bloomberg has hit upon a novel way to get people off the streets: He's buying them tickets.

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Since 2007, the city has quietly arranged airfare or bus tickets - one-way - for 550 homeless families. They have been sent as far away as India, Russia and Peru, although the bulk have been dispatched southward, to Florida and Puerto Rico. Recipients must demonstrate they have a family somewhere that is willing to take them in, and they are free to choose whether they want to participate in the program.

Critics have derided the plan as both desperate and reckless, one that exposes the collective failure of several administrations to deal with the problem through sensible policies. Moving homeless people out of the state merely transfers the problem to another jurisdiction, without any guarantee that they will fare better elsewhere, they say.

"We're pretty convinced this is a cosmetic gesture more than anything," said Scott Cotenoff, a senior vice-president at the Partnership for the Homeless.

Mayor Bloomberg, however, insisted Wednesday that the process of moving the homeless will save the city significant money.

"I don't know, when they get to the other places, whether they find jobs," he said in an appearance at City Hall. "We either have two choices. We can do this program or pay an enormous amount of money daily to provide housing."

According to New York officials, it costs $36,000 (U.S.) a year to house someone without shelter: far greater than the cost of airfare for a family. Practically speaking, however, relocation in itself is powerless to address the magnitude of New York's homeless problem. Almost 36,000 people in the city are without shelter, and of this number, more than 15,000 are children, according to government statistics.

The idea of moving the homeless is not new, nor is it confined to the United States. Alberta and British Columbia are among provinces that have used free bus tickets in the past to rid themselves of homeless citizens - a practice known as "Greyhound therapy."

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Hawaii lawmakers proposed a plan this year to fly homeless residents to the mainland, but it was rejected. The state has estimated that 40 per cent of its homeless are from other places, but have been drawn there in part because of the clement weather.

The roots of New York's homeless population stretch back much further, abetted by the city's status as a beacon for those looking to carve out a better life. The country's first homeless shelter, the New York City Rescue Mission, was founded here in 1872, while the down-and-outs who dwelled in the Bowery made it America's most visible skid row.

Over the intervening decades, the problem has intensified in lockstep with a swelling population and rising housing costs. Homelessness soared during the recession of the 1980s, and it threatens to do so again. According to data compiled by the Coalition for the Homeless, the souring economy helped push almost 110,000 people into city shelters last year.

The group has been a vocal critic of the mayor's five-year plan to attack homelessness, and claims there are now 5,000 more families in shelters than when he took office.

Mr. Bloomberg has adopted other controversial measures recently to reduce the number of people on the streets and cut down on the cost of sheltering them. In May, the city reportedly began charging some families who stayed in shelters.

And on Tuesday, the city implemented new rules that will enable it to evict shelter residents for an expanded range of transgressions, including breaking curfew, according to the New York Times, which first reported Mr. Bloomberg's ticket giveaway.

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