Public Services

RIPTA to pilot free bus pass for people experiencing homelessness

The RIPTA Board voted on Wednesday to approve a pilot program that will in the short term deliver up to 600 free bus passes to people experiencing homelessness in the state, an increase from the 100 currently authorized.

October 21, 2022, 9:03 am

By Steve Ahlquist

The Rhode Island Public Transportation Administration (RIPTA) Board voted on Wednesday to approve a pilot program that will in the short term deliver up to 600 free bus passes to people experiencing homelessness in the state. In the long term, the resolution passed by the board seeks to establish a permanent program to provide free bus transportation for the unhoused going forward.

The issue was put on the Board’s agenda by RIPTA Boardmember Patrick Crowley, who was following the lead of activists at the Mathewson Street United Methodist Church and the Rhode Island Housing Justice Organizing Committee in downtown Providence. Mathewson provides the only consistent weekly Sunday breakfast for unhoused people in the state, yet transportation remains a problem for those who wish to access this breakfast, especially as we approach the cold winter months.

Crowley was present at Mathewson the preceding Sunday as RIPTA employees attempted to qualify unhoused people under the existing guidelines, without much success. (See: Mathewson St. Church helping the unhoused apply for free RIPTA bus passes)

Kevin Simon, Director of Outreach and Communications at Mathewson, testifying before the Board, noted that on Sunday 12 people were successfully qualified for bus passes, out of 63 people who entered the room to fill out applications. Simon also presented the board with a petition signed by 140 unhoused persons at Mathewson in need of a bus pass.

“Without transportation,” said Simon, “it makes life pretty hard.”

Even attending the Board meeting to advocate for themselves was a hardship for many unhoused people. Mathewson had to write two letters to shelter directors explaining why a person should be allowed to arrive late to their shelter. Without the letter these people could lose their bed for the night or even lose their bed for weeks or months as they find themselves at the bottom of the list for shelter beds.

People who are unhoused often lack the documentation they need to demonstrate their need. Some are waiting for replacement social security cards, a process that for some can take weeks or months. The present system used by RIPTA is dependent on documentation many unhoused people simply do not have.

Kevin Simon

Reverend Duane Clinker, who serves Mathewson Street Church, explained the nature of their ask. “I want to submit to you that this is an easy lift,” said Reverend Clinker, “You don’t have to be in the verification business.

“You’ve got a multitude of housing agencies in the state that can be in the verification business. And I want to suggest to you that whether someone is sleeping on a floor, on a carpet of an apartment with a friend tonight, or on the street or in a shelter or in their car, they are unhoused. Who best to know that, than people like the fellowship breakfast at Mathewson Street, the Coalition for the Homeless that actually registers people – but not all of them. People slip through the cracks. People don’t know what to do. You’re suddenly homeless. What do you do?”

Reverend Duane Clinker

Also speaking in favor of the new program was John Flaherty, representing GrowSmart Rhode Island, and Randall Rose, speaking on behalf of the Rhode Island Transit Riders.

The RIPTA Board discussion of the idea took over 80 minutes, but ultimately decided in favor of a pilot program suggested in a memo from Greg Nordine, Chief of Strategic Advancement at RIPTA, modifying the plan’s proposed 100 free passes in favor of a more expansive 600.

After the hearing advocates noted that even though it seems they got what they needed from the RIPTA Board, the “proof is in the pudding” and they will be following up with RIPTA over the next days. RIPTA employees will be back at Mathewson Street Church this coming Sunday morning to try and qualify more people for free passes.

You can watch the entire RIPTA Board discussion here.

Boardmembers Patrick Crowley and DOT Director Peter Alviti