‘Fare Access’ for the homeless: Craig’s Doors launches free bus pass program to overcome transportation barrier


Staff Writer

Published: 04-01-2023 11:42 AM

AMHERST — After months of searching for a home for a Craig’s Doors shelter guest who uses state rental vouchers, Jack Myers was excited to find an available unit and set up a tour.

However, when Myers arrived to tour the rental unit, the guest was nowhere to be found.

“When I called and asked where he was, he told me he couldn’t afford a bus pass,” said Myers, who was a case manager at the time. “Setting up an appointment is hard enough to do because of the standards required to move in somewhere with a voucher … and the thing that stopped him was literally $2.”

Since then, Myers’ work with Craig’s Doors made him realize the barrier that a lack of access poses to those looking to overcome homelessness. So when the 21-year-old political science major was contemplating how he could make an impact on the community that has lasting effects as part of his senior thesis project at the University of Massachusetts, he proposed providing guests of Craig’s Doors with access to the PVTA bus system for free.

Craig’s Doors leaders liked the idea and began working out the details for a so-called “Fare Access Program,” which is now providing free full-day, unlimited bus passes for its guests. The pilot program launched March 1 and continues until July 26, giving clients the ability to take public transit to work, medical appointments, and the grocery store, among other trips.

“The people who stay with us are at the bottom of the economic ladder. And while a lot of people think that public transportation is cheap and accessible, for a lot of people who stay here, the fare is too much of a barrier for them to actually use it to get where they need to go and to get the resources they need to get out of homelessness,” Myers said.

Mobilizing equality

Now the coordinator of special projects at Craig’s Doors, Myers developed the Fair Access Program with Tim McCarthy, executive director of the Amherst human services organization, and Maya Elsner, director of development.

“I was thrilled that our staff are carrying out this mission in their personal time,” McCarthy said. “That is an amazing testament to the culture that they create internally and into the energy that they bring to the guests. It’s a different level of sincerity. It’s not just a paycheck. It’s an opportunity to try and make change and Jack is a perfect representation of that.”

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In considering how the organization would fund the initiative, McCarthy looked to Earl Miller, director of Amherst’s Community Responders for Equity, Safety & Service department.

Within a few weeks of launching CRESS, Miller realized that the majority of people the municipal department was dealing with were experiencing homelessness.

“I’ve been homeless, and it’s a really tough way to live, and what we’ve found is that people feel really stuck here,” he said. “That was pretty frustrating for folks because they saw the free UMass bus for students, faculty and staff, and they wondered why they couldn’t get around. We have a grant through the state Department of Public Health for wraparound services, and having that resource and the proposal that they brought, it just kind of seemed like a kind of commonsense idea to fund this thing and make it easy for folks.”

Using the $60,000 that CRESS allocated to Craig’s Doors — part of the agency’s funding from the state budget last year that’s excluded from Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget — Craig’s Doors purchased 10,000 full-day unlimited ride bus passes for $25,184 from the PVTA.

Throughout the Fare Access pilot period, McCarthy said Craig’s Doors is collecting data to illustrate the outcomes of providing a free pass. Each day when someone collects a pass, the organization will get a better understanding of where they are going and what they’re doing.

Those who prefer not to share their personal data can go to the Amherst Survival Center, which also distributes day passes through the program.

“We hope to illustrate the importance of public transit as a human right. And … hopefully encourage other programs to start advocating to offer this to the folks who are in interim housing or shelter,” McCarthy said.

Data highlights gaps in current systems

Preliminary data collected from the project has shown that every participant reported that they were not receiving any earned income upon entry into Craig’s Doors and that every participant currently receives Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP.

Though the data could still change over the course of the pilot’s 21 weeks, Myers said this could be a way to indicate who needs transportation assistance in the state.

“SNAP is already user-friendly and designed to assist low-income folks. If Massachusetts residents who qualify for SNAP also qualify for transportation assistance, we could have a streamlined process for providing transportation assistance statewide exactly where it is needed,” he said.

The largest use for the passes, at 28.8%, has been for personal needs, such as going to do laundry and grocery shopping. The data also shows that 10.1% of Fare Access passes are being used by guests to get to work.

“There is obviously a severe gap between state and nonprofit transportation assistance and actual need,” he said.

‘Us’, not ‘them’

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists 30 articles enshrining fundamental human rights. Among them is medical care. But for those who are experiencing homelessness, one of the biggest barriers to receiving medical care is transportation.

“We’re one of the richest states in the richest country in the history of the world, and folks can’t get to a doctor’s appointment,” Miller said. “We’re just trying to get the bare minimum.”

In addition to health care access, Myers said that providing free public transit can allow those who are unhoused in Amherst to connect to resources that others might take for granted, such as visiting a family member, a community group or cultural activity.

“There’s a lot of research that shows people having access to their friends and family and social supports and community supports can help them get out of homelessness,” he said.

The program is one of several initiatives Craig’s Doors and other supporting partners are engaging in to find ways to help people graduate from homelessness. Eliminating the transportation barrier provides those who are unhoused with a better quality of life, McCarthy said.

“By providing access, we are not limiting people in their capacity to build their own lives and to exercise agency … this is ‘us,’ not ‘them’,” McCarthy said. “This is bringing them out of this little pocket of marginalized access to infrastructure and allowing them into the community where they can socialize.”

“They want the same things that we all want: They want to have relationships. They want to have friends. They want to be able to socialize and have real, full lives,” Miller said.

Based on the initial results, Craig’s Doors is hopeful that money can be found to make the program a permanent fixture. Once the data is collected, they hope to present their findings to legislators to show that the issue of access is not isolated to Amherst and that it will eventually become a part of the sheltering budget for the state Department of Housing and Community Development or the Department of Public Health.

“Transportation is the thread that connects all of these other fundamental human rights,” McCarthy said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.]]>