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Photo by Capital Metro. A member of the unhoused community on Monday, Aug. 29, implores the Capital Metro board to make transportation free for people who are experiencing homelessness.

Advocates continue the fight for free transportation for Austin’s unhoused

Tuesday, August 30, 2022 by Samuel Stark

The start of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s monthly board of directors meeting yesterday had a different feel than usual. Typically, a few speakers may approach the podium to speak in support of or against an item on the agenda.

Yesterday, however, advocates and members of Austin’s unhoused community packed the Rosa Parks Boardroom to implore Capital Metro to make some transportation services free for people experiencing homelessness. Approximately 20 people spoke during the public comment section even though there was no agenda item related to the matter. 

“I’m a person with lived experience of homelessness. … Accessing a daily fare is an issue, and it’s an unnecessary issue,” said Lyric Wardlow, who now works for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, or ECHO. “So, I’m advocating for free fare, not because I’m required to … but because it’s just an unnecessary barrier,” she said.

“We are humans just as y’all are, and we (are) trying to make it,” said another speaker, Tony Carter. “You have to look at the big picture: us homeless people need transportation, and you’re the best people to come up with a solution,” he told the board.

Capital Metro announced earlier this month that it would provide free rides to cooling centers to anyone experiencing homelessness through the end of September.

Also, through the Transit Empowerment Fund, organizations that work with low-income people can apply for free or discounted bus passes which they can give out to the people they serve. Capital Metro has donated over $1.2 million to the fund and gives out $350,000 more annually. 

But speakers from various nonprofits said they do not receive enough passes and often need to turn people away.

“We ask our unhoused neighbors to walk miles, stand in lines for hours, and participate in lottery systems and other dehumanizing processes for a chance at a bus pass. We never have enough bus passes, and people are turned away daily,” said Emily Seales, a social worker with Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center.

Christian Rodriguez, executive director of the Trinity Center, said the number of people who line up to receive passes from his organization typically exceeds the number of passes they have to give out.  

“We hate turning people away. It’s not fun to have to say, this is all we can give,” Rodriguez said. “We’re just one small agency among the many that can give what we can get. I think the idea of free fares can change everything for a person.”

Capital Metro board members were receptive to the concerns raised at the meeting. They said they will have a detailed briefing on the issue at the agency’s operations meeting next month.

“I have identified that transit has been a barrier but was not aware that it was a problem with this particular program. Clearly, we need to do something about it,” Board Member Eric Stratton said. “I believe that we hear you all and understand what’s going on out there. We appreciate that (and) we do want to address this going forward.”

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