On the Road Again

by Patricia Cichowicz

I always ride in the front of the bus where I can see where I’m going and I can check out all the people getting on the bus. I guess it is just part of my nosy nature. Well, Saturday was one of those bone chilling days. You know that a cold wind downtown is like no other cold wind in the city. This old guy got on the bus with his cane. He had “the look.” You know that look of someone who’s been on the streets for years — no hat, funky clothes, and tennis shoes with lumps that were feet, but obviously deformed ones.

Well, he sits down besides me and tells the driver he’s got to count his change. I peek and see that he’s got 36 cents. So I slip him a buck. He winks at me and says, “Young lady, would you mind putting my fare in the box? I always have a hard time walking when the bus is moving.” Then he smiled. We had a chat about the weather and then I had to get off.

Later I got to thinking that using busses must be a major way for the homeless to get out of the cold. I began asking bus drivers about their feelings about the homeless and what they do when someone gets on the bus with no money. Some drivers weren’t very talkative and said things like, “This ain’t no hotel.” But most drivers I talked to had sympathy for the fix the homeless are in. One driver said that he let them take their time getting the money out but eventually he has to ask for it. “After all,” he said, “it’s my job. The other people on the bus may get angry if I don’t and report me.”

One bus driver said he had favorite homeless people that he watched out for. He said that he always checked up on one lady that spent the night outside the drugstore on 9th and Rockwell. “She was a nice lady. I liked her. She’s dead now,” he said.

Knowing that busses are under government controls, I decided to call and find out the policy RTA had for homeless riders and if there were any programs for them. As it turns out there are cheap ways for any low-income person to use RTA.

I spoke to some customer service people at RTA and found out the scoop. At first, I thought that I had made them a little defensive with my opening question of “How do you feel about homeless people riding on your busses without money to pay the fare?” “Well, RTA is a business and we all pay a 1% income tax to run it,” the voice said. “And, we have to consider the feelings of all our customers. But, let me tell you some ways we do make it easier for low income people to use RTA.”

According to Federal guidelines, there are 504 programs offered to low income riders. The person must obtain a photo ID for $3 and have some statement from a health professional to indicate need. A wide range of things are accepted here. It may be something from a social worker, the VA administration, a doctor, an epilepsy clinic, etc.

“We take anything from the VA. We want to take care of our veterans,” she said. The ID will allow a person to ride any bus, express bus, or rapid for 50 cents. There is also an all day pass for $4 that is good ‘til 3:00am. One could buy it ahead of time and use it whenever it gets really cold. One other way to beat the cost of bus fare is to get an “offpeak” pass. It costs $7.50 for a week’s riding. It is good from 9:30 am-3:00 pm and 7:00pm - 6:30am. The only hitch with this option is that you have to have ridden one time that day at peak hours.

“Gee,” I said to the lady, “You have been very helpful. This is great information. What is your name?” “Lott,” she said, “but I’m not in charge here. You had better talk to Mike Conway. He’s really our spokesperson. I used to work with the Coalition when I worked at Channel 8,” she said. Continuing, she said, “I know all about how hard it is for the economically disadvantaged. I want you to know that we try hard to be an affordable means of transportation. We are in our 5th year of not raising fares. And we give it our best to meet the needs of all our customers, even the low-income riders. I know that a lot of our riders have feelings toward the homeless. Some volunteer at food shelters and you know that we have a food drive in winter at RTA where we encourage everyone to give food for the food banks. We honestly try to service everyone in a quality manner at RTA.”

Well, that is it. If you’ve got a need to ride cheaply—get a $3 ID. It is one way to see the sights of the city and beat those chilly winter winds.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1997 Issue 19