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How a Transportation Safety Net Could Keep More People Off the Streets

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A stock photo taken April 6, 2017 shows a Metro train moving along the Gold Line in downtown Los Angeles. Anti-poverty advocates say there is no consistent safety net to help struggling Californians afford reliable transportation. (Courtesy of Metro/Flickr Creative Commons)

While housing costs in California have skyrocketed, what is often the second biggest expense for a household is commonly overlooked and is contributing to the surge in homelessness.

Anti-poverty advocates have called for measures to provide low-income residents more assistance with transportation costs.

Access to reliable transportation is crucial to maintaining stable employment, reaching educational opportunities, caring for family and staying healthy, they said. But there is no consistent safety net to help struggling people meet that need.

A 2015 study by Harvard University found access to transportation is the single biggest factor in the odds of escaping poverty and avoiding homelessness.

"There are so many people that just cannot make ends meet before you even get to the concept of transportation," said Veronica Lewis, a director at Homeless Outreach Programs Integrated System, or HOPICS, one of the largest homeless service providers in Los Angeles. "Honestly, it's one of the biggest barriers for some of our clients."


That includes Oscar Ramos, formerly homeless, for whom HOPICS has recently secured temporary housing at a hotel in Long Beach. Ramos is in the process of documenting medical issues and applying for Social Security benefits, so he has regular appointments he needs to get to in downtown Los Angeles.

The journey from his new housing in Long Beach will take more than an hour on a train and a bus with walking in between. HOPICS provides Ramos with transit tokens as a form of temporary relief, but without the emergency assistance he has few options.

"I walk," he said. "I've got some new shoes and the heels are already messed up from walking so much."

Costs Quickly Add Up

A $1.75 L.A. Metro ticket doesn't sound like much, but taking multiple trips a day adds up quickly. A monthly pass might save Ramos money, but at $76, it would eat up a third of the assistance he gets to cover his monthly expenses.

"If we don't figure out a way to increase people's access, reduce the burden of taking care of their business, getting to and fro, the problem will continue to get worse," Lewis said.

HOPICS cobbles together transportation support from a patchwork of public subsidies, but it's not enough. The nonprofit draws on its general budget to buy extra Metro tokens and run a fleet of vans, using funds it gets through foundations, the city and county that could otherwise be put to services like housing, health care and job training.

Lewis wants to see more coordinated efforts to strengthen the transportation safety net, not only for people like Ramos, but for low-income communities before they fall into homelessness.

Seattle Is Working on a Solution

Many advocates point to a program in the Seattle area as a model for such an approach. It's the first big city in the country to try a simple idea: Charge low-income people less to use transit.

"We knew that there is a population that can't afford to use public transportation, and that it's a very vulnerable population that we wanted to make sure we reached," said Christina O'Claire, a manager with King County Metro Transit, which runs the ORCA LIFT low-income discount program.

It sounds obvious, but what King County has done is pretty unique: They cut the base fares for single rides and passes on all forms of transit in the county by about half, and partnered with other social service agencies to enroll people when they pick up food stamps or go to the doctor. So far they've signed up about 70,000 people.

In California, many transit agencies offer discounts to students, seniors or the disabled, but there are very few programs for low-income people who don't fit into those groups.

There are some exceptions, though none as comprehensive or deeply discounted as Seattle's. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority offers about a 20 percent discount on its monthly pass and is working on allowing users to pay in weekly installments, instead of $76 on the first of the month.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency offers steeply discounted bus passes for $38 a month. In coming months, three more Bay Area transit agencies will join a pilot program with at least 20 percent off fares on Bay Area Rapid Transit, Caltrain and Golden Gate Transit.

Helping With Fares Isn't the Only Answer

But simply addressing the dollar cost might not be enough to really help low-income people.

"They also need something that can work for them in terms of time cost," said Marlon Boarnet, chair of the urban planning department at the University of Southern California.

Last year, Boarnet co-authored a study of how different modes of transportation affect access to jobs by low-income workers in San Diego County.

"We found transit is not nearly as good at connecting people to the labor market as cars," he said.

Drivers had access to 30 times the number of jobs within a half-hour commute compared to those who relied on public transportation. The time disparity is particularly fraught for low-wage workers who may have odd hours, work overnight and can often be docked pay or fired for being late.

But the cost of owning a vehicle can be prohibitive. One study from the Public Policy Institute of California found low-income people in the San Francisco Bay Area spent about 10 times as much on transportation if they drove compared to taking transit.

But Boarnet found that simply shortening the time it takes people get to transit stops could improve people's job access considerably. It would be the equivalent of adding 25 percent more buses and trains throughout the public transit system.

"What could help make transit a better job access tool? One answer is dockless bikes, e-bikes and scooters," Boarnet said.

Casting a Broader Safety Net

He believes emerging technologies can offer big benefits to low-income people who can't afford cars. But he said it's up to policymakers to ensure the services are accessible to people who need them most, like Oscar Ramos, who doesn't have a phone or a credit card.

Boarnet said the transportation safety net may need to be broader to include solutions to banking, smartphones and subsidies for the many private services that are filling gaps in the transportation network.

"There's no one size fits all," said Lewis at HOPICS. "The people that come into our office have all kinds of stories and experiences and needs, so we have to be able to do all those things."

The organization was able to give Ramos a van ride to his new housing in Long Beach. It's just one step in a long haul toward getting on his feet, but Ramos was heartened that he's further down the road to a better future.

"I have five children. You don't know how much that would mean to me — to be able to have a good paying job, a house for them to come stay the night," he said. "The joy would just fill my heart."

The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.

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