The price of bus tickets jumped by a quarter in November, to $1.25, and the increase was probably long overdue. Metro had gone 14 years without a hike.
But a less publicized change that went into effect about a year ago has done far more to drain the pockets of some of Metro's regular customers -- the poor, and the social agencies that help them.
Those agencies spend about $51,000 a month on bus tickets. Since the day pass was eliminated last January -- and, later, the discount charities receive on bus fare more than halved -- that money doesn't go nearly as far as it used to.
At Compass on the corner of San Jacinto and Prairie, for instance, people come for help finding a job or getting an ID (often both). Each task requires multiple bus stops, which are getting impossible to fund.
"Clients go to fewer places, and it costs more money," Executive Director Cynthia Brannon tells Hair Balls.
Before the changes, when bus tickets still cost $1, charities could buy them for 72 cents apiece--and two made a day pass.
Brannon provided Hair Balls with a list of what two day passes might have accomplished for a typical client.
1. Go to the Social Security office and request something called a "print-out", so he would have some form of identification
2. Go to an agency called Operation ID, at the First Presbyterian Church (with the appropriate referral from Compass), and get a check to buy a birth certificate and a check to take to DPS to buy a new ID
3. Go to the Bureau of Vital Statistics to buy his birth certificate
4. Go to DPS and apply for a new ID
5. Put in the job application he had in mind at the restaurant on Westheimer that's looking for a sous chef
6. Go "home," which is probably a shelter or just an area of town where he sleeps on the streets
Compass, a relatively small operation, sees over 7,000 clients a year. Its Metro budget rarely exceeded $1,000 before the changes but was over $2,000 in both January and February this year. The monthly total for all charities that buy bus fare through the Coalition for the Homeless is up about 8 percent since the changes.
"I'm hearing stories of anywhere between four and eight tickets to get the clients to [all the places they need to go]," says Thao Costis, Executive Director at SEARCH, which as one of the city's larger social service providers budgets $65,000 a year for transportation.
The discount has been decreased from 28 to 13 percent and applies only to the bulk $5, $10 and $20 cards, not the $1.25 and $2.50 ones agencies are more likely to use.
Jeffrey Linton, Metro's Revenue Director, notes that social agencies are now the only groups to receive discounts (big companies no longer get them) and says Metro owes it to taxpayers to keep down costs and provide a just fare structure.
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"The day pass was an instrument that we felt was not fair to the rest of our riders," he says. "There was no way to control its abuse, and frankly it had just gotten out of hand."
Scot More of the Coalition for the Homeless, who spearheaded a back-and-forth with Metro over the changes that lasted for months (and who took the call from Hair Balls while riding the bus), says Linton put it to him more bluntly: Metro is not a shelter for the homeless.
People had been known to use day passes to spend nights (or days) asleep on the bus, especially on longer routes like 85, 50 and Westheimer.
Now they can only sleep one way at a time.