Opinion: Cap Metro Must Safeguard No-Cost Transit for Unhoused Austinites

Adding security guards to transit centers and bus routes will increase stigmatization of the poor

Opinion: Cap Metro Must Safeguard No-Cost Transit for Unhoused Austinites

I have been unstably housed in Austin for more than 20 years. For some, that admission might come with immediate judgments, stigmas, and stereotypes. What you might not expect is my experience advocating to improve conditions for people experiencing homelessness like myself. I have rallied, testified, and, most recently, advocated to ensure free bus fares for those who are houseless. It was an incredible win for myself and my community, but just months after the no-cost transit passes for unhoused Austinites has taken effect, I fear progress made by making bus passes more accessible could become vulnerable.

Last month, Capital Metro announced plans to – for the first time – add private, unarmed security guards to major routes and transit centers. Cap Metro says this decision was driven by complaints about safety. Unfortunately, unhoused people know too well that talks of “safety” are often not rooted in evidence, but rooted in stigmas against poor people. Let me make one thing clear: Adding unarmed security guards contradicts the good intentions and spirit of providing free fares for those in need. Cap Metro must safeguard no-cost bus passes for unhoused Austinites, and instead of funding the criminalization of poverty through one of the city’s most important services, Cap Metro should work with the city and county to solve homelessness through housing and services.

Each day looks different when you’re houseless, but there is always one constant: relying on the Cap Metro buses every single day, multiple times a day. Whether I’m in a bed in congregate shelter or in a tent like where I currently reside, the city bus is my lifeline to the outside world. It’s my connection to the library where I can use the internet to find services and housing opportunities. It’s my way to access showers, laundry, and wellness services. For me, the bus is just as much about literal mobility as it is about my mobility out of my current situation.

From my time relying on Austin’s buses – where I sometimes spend half my day – I have a great appreciation for the drivers getting us from place to place. However, I’ve also experienced the needless aggression of off-duty Austin police officers who currently patrol the system and a small minority of Cap Metro drivers. Introducing more law enforcement only introduces more opportunities for people who are struggling to face criminalization. When we consider how our jails and prisons are already filled with people experiencing homelessness, transit centers are the perfect place to target that population.

After years of not having a permanent home, I know stigma like the back of my hand. We live in a society where it is easier to judge and criminalize people on the margins than to understand how they got there or what they actually need. Unfortunately, stigma and perception alone can be enough probable cause to arrest, or even violence.

Homelessness doesn’t ever look or act like one thing, despite the picture some jaded lawmakers paint. The times I’ve been seen as a violent vagrant or instigator far outnumber the times I’ve been seen as a part of the Austin community. Truth is, the only thing I’ve ever instigated is better living conditions for people like myself.

I am proud to have organized my neighbors outside bus pass distribution lines, met directly with Cap Metro leadership about our needs, testified at board meetings, rallied outside of Cap Metro headquarters, and delivered over 1,000 petition signatures calling for transit justice for those of us who are unhoused.

If Cap Metro wants to make bus rides safer for all of its riders, then instead of adding security guards to bus lines to criminalize and stigmatize the unhoused, Cap Metro should safeguard the critical bus pass program that has helped so many of us access more services, housing opportunities, doctor’s appointments, and more. And they should join our calls for the city and county to fund permanent housing and services for those that need it.

Barry Jones is an Austin resident and leader with VOCAL-TX, an organization organizing people impacted by the War on Drugs, homelessness, mass incarceration, and HIV/AIDS.

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