Cap Metro Issues 7,000 Free Passes for the Unhoused

Texas Harm Reduction Alliance wins fight for free passes

Texas Harm Reduction Alliance announces a new program in cooperation with Capital Metro, providing thousands of free 31-day bus passes (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After months of focused advocacy on behalf of unhoused Austinites by the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Capital Metro this week committed 7,000 free 31-day bus passes to a six-month pilot program to increase transit access. The passes will be distributed by the Ending Community Home­lessness Coalition's community partners and the Transit Empowerment Fund, which already helps local nonprofits and basic-needs agencies pay for Cap Metro's reduced-fare programs. TEF's Andrew Levack says the free passes are an extension of that: "The issue raised by advocates was people experiencing homelessness not [being] able to access all the [reduced-fare] passes they needed. A lot of grassroots organizations didn't have the budget to cover the level of demand that was out there."

Levack explains that the program could be incorporated into Cap Metro's new Amp card, an account-based system, which would let low-income customers buy more cost-effective daily or monthly passes. The transit agency's Equifare program is designed to automatically enroll those below 200% of the federal poverty level or who are receiving social services to be eligible for reduced fares, similar to how Austin Energy's Customer Assistance Program works. People in the Homeless Management Information System database shared by all local providers would automatically get free trips through the Amp card. Levack says once that is implemented, "where people fall through the cracks in the HMIS system, [we] can still provide passes. That's the perfect case study: If someone is [unhoused], and they want to get into the HMIS system, you need a bus fare to go get case ­management."

Cap Metro will track the 7,000 passes to see how many rides are being taken. They and TEF will then use that data to determine the true demand, and how much they need to budget to make the program permanent. "Right now, if those riders use all of the fare value, it's about $2 million a year," says Levack. "That would be a serious budget issue for them to consider. My sense is that the unmet need is much less than that. When you have multiple organizations issuing 31-day passes, there's a lot of unused fares in that $2 million."

But Paulette Soltani with THRA says that may not be the case: THRA has requested 350 a month, and in one week has already distributed 200. "We're burning through them; it's a good thing, and it also does worry me a little bit." Soltani says other groups who aren't in the TEF program have also requested passes from THRA, so there may need to be reshuffling based on under or overestimating the demand. "We did raise that [and] TEF was adamant that we could go back to them if we needed to. I feel like we have a really good working relationship."

TEF and Cap Metro will check in with community partners in January, but Soltani has a feeling more passes will be needed before April. She notes that "it was unhoused people who spoke up, they testified at board meetings, they led the charge, and if we don't listen to them, we're gonna miss the needs of our community. I think for so long [unhoused] people in Austin have been hit with horrible policy decisions that have made [their] lives so much more difficult. And finally, [it's] a step in the right direction."

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