Health Care

Mathewson St. Church helping the unhoused apply for free RIPTA bus passes

RIPTA was invited by the Rhode Island Housing Justice organizing Committee because one of the great obstacles unhoused people face in getting to Mathewson on Sunday mornings, or anywhere else in the state where services are provided on other days, is the cost of bus service.

October 17, 2022, 1:41 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

Mathewson Street United Methodist Church in downtown Providence is the site of the only weekly free breakfast for unhoused people offered in Rhode Island. Around 250 people attend the breakfast, where volunteers offer coffee, eggs, breakfast meats and more, as volunteer musicians entertain. The doors open around 7am for coffee and breakfast is served shortly after.

At 9am some stay for Bible study and still more stay for the mass offered by the Reverend Duane Clinker at 10am. All are welcome.

This Sunday was different as representatives from the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) were at Mathewson “processing No Fare and Reduced Fare Photo ID Bus Passes for qualifying passengers.” RIPTA was invited by the Rhode Island Housing Justice Organizing Committee because one of the great obstacles unhoused people face in getting to Mathewson on Sunday mornings, or anywhere else in the state where services are provided on other days, is the cost of bus service.

[The RIPTA Board will take up potential improvements in their free bus pass program on Wednesday, October 19, 2022 at 5pm at their offices on 269 Melrose Street in Providence.][Edit: The meeting was originally scheduled for 1:30pm]

“Folks from RIPTA are here, in the small sanctuary,” said Kevin Simon, Director of Outreach and Communications at Mathewson during morning announcements. “If you have questions about bus passes, qualifications, concerns, comments, suggestions, please go in and see them.”

“RIPTA officials are out there right now to try to qualify people for free bus passes,” reiterated Reverend Clinker, taking his turn at the microphone. “Not everybody is going to make it through. They’re trying to qualify people under their existing system. Some people, maybe as many as 20, have already made it through… Try to get out there if you think you might qualify under one of the existing systems and get a pass because we want everybody who can get a pass to get a pass now.”

Reverend Clinker pointed to the banner hanging above the stage that read, “We want free bus transportation for all unhoused people in RI.”

“See this banner? What’s happening out there is good. We want as many people as possible to get through the program but we know that not everybody can get through. So we are demanding free bus passes for every unhoused person in the state,” said Reverend Clinker to a chorus of approval in the room.

“Now this is going to take action. This is going to take solidarity, which means consciously helping each other,” continued Reverend Clinker. “Wednesday is the RIPTA Board meeting. It is a public meeting. We are going to be there. We need you there.

“On the table there will be ‘Shall it be the policy of RIPTA to provide free bus transportation for everybody who is unhoused?‘ Are you in this? We need you there. Talk it up.”

Afterward Reverend Clinker told Uprise RI, “We need anybody who can be there to be there. We need allies at this meeting.” [A copy of the proposed policy solutions can be seen here.]

In the small sanctuary room, from 7 to 9am, RIPTA processed around 63 people filed into the room to fill out applications Sunday morning. Around 12 people were qualified for passes under the program. That’s less than 20%. [Note: This has been corrected from numbers given to Uprise RI Sunday morning.] Those that did not qualify were not necessarily undeserving, they simply did not have access to the documentation needed to prove that they qualify. One unhoused man spoke to Uprise RI about not bothering to apply, because he knew he didn’t have access to the information RIPTA needed. This is a common problem for the unhoused said Kevin Simon. As people fall into poverty and homelessness, they often lose the documents they need to pull themselves out.

Other people Uprise RI spoke to complained of being routinely being discriminated against when they use the bus service. Sometimes buses sail past them, even when they are waiting at proper bus stops. The driver shortage is also decreasing the frequency of buses, even on the R-Line, the most used bus route in RIPTA’s system, which is currently free under a test authorized by the General Assembly. Lastly, while some bus drivers are amazing, and most are professional, two people told Uprise RI that some bus drivers are rude and verbally abusive to the unhoused. RIPTA has a complaint line for instances like this.

Another obstacle to the bus passes is that RIPTA charges a $10 fee, a real hardship for the unhoused and unemployed. Fortunately, a generous supporter of Mathewson agreed to cover the $10 fee with a donation. Organizers maintain that these passes should be free, with no fees, and more easily available so that donations like this can go directly to providing services.

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