AUSTIN (KXAN) — CapMetro officials will look into a possible fare change or pilot program to offer free bus passes to people experiencing homelessness, as advocates rallied at Monday’s CapMetro board meeting.
Dozens spoke during a public comment period Monday, including organizers who work at homelessness resource organizations as well as those without housing. Calls for free bus passes have risen in recent months amid record-breaking heat this summer, but advocates said this has been an issue they’ve identified for years.
Chris Baker, executive director of The Other Ones Foundation, said it’s not just about getting people on buses themselves, but also focusing on an equitable distribution of resources for unhoused residents. He said that while the city works toward expanding housing infrastructure for people experiencing homelessness, buses are already available as an opportunity to connect people with critical appointments and resources.
Brent Payne, president of Amalgamated Transit Union in Austin, said that he was happy to see the board was hosting this discussion, but added another component that needs to be considered is bus operators’ safety. He said that element is critical to ensure both drivers’ safety, and those of other passengers, are included in the conversation.
Lyric Wardlow, a community training manager with Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), said she was homeless between the ages of 9 and 18, bouncing among homeless shelters with her mom. For her, she said access to public transit was critical, and fares can act as a barrier for people who do not have the means or disposable income to consistently pay for daily fares.
“It is a barrier to have to go out of your way everyday to figure out how you’re going to access the public transportation system with that money,” Wardlow said.
Without access to funds or free fares, that can have substantial impacts on people experiencing homelessness access jobs, food, social work resources and other essential services.
Paulette Soltani, director of organizing with the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, read aloud accounts she’d received from unhoused residents on their experiences trying to access free passes distributed by various homelessness organizations across the city.
One person whose account she shared said lines for the Trinity Center’s pass distributions begin around 4-5 a.m. on Wednesdays, with 100 or more people trying to access 50 available passes.
“It’s deeply humiliating. It’s immoral, inhumane,” she said. “It’s all of those words that come to mind when people are not getting the things they need.”
Tony Carter, a person experiencing homelessness, said it’s difficult for him to commute to and from his job due to the limited funds he has to buy passes. Many people, particularly those working at minimum wage jobs, cannot afford the expenses, he said.
He recounted a time he had to walk from east Austin to Del Valle to get to work, unable to afford a pass. Arriving late, his boss told him he couldn’t do that again.
“We are humans just as y’all are,” Carter said while addressing the board. “And we trying to make it.”
CapMetro staff will meet with the transit authority’s operations, planning and safety committee Sept. 14 to discuss a specific timeline and next steps at the local and federal level for implementing free fares for people experiencing homelessness.