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Developing a homeless transit plan for Vancouver

Find out when the Compass Card faregates close, and how the city plans to handle tickets for homeless riders.

Faresaver card: A dying breed

Before the gates snap shut

Exiting the Joyce-Collingwood SkyTrain station, you dash through the open faregates to make the crosswalk.

Those faregates will snap shut in about eight months, which is why the Transit Working Group (TWG) is is hashing out a way to help the Lower Mainland's homeless and at-risk population use TransLink's services once the Compass Card system rolls out.

From Joyce-Collingwood Station, it's just a two-minute walk to Collingwood Neighbourhood house. That's where members of the Transit Working Group, Vancouver City Council, King County Metro Transit, and several Vancouver-area homeless groups presented a panel titled "Public transit access: break the cycle of homelessness."

Why the SkyTrain faregates won't take paper tickets

You've noticed that the new Compass faregates will not accept paper tickets. This, according to TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis, is mainly because of cost. Buying faregates which only accept RFID inputs (and which won't require maintenance of all those moisture-sensitive ticket-reading moving parts) were a cheaper proposition than running two systems in tandem.

This makes sense, considering TransLink is a service provider: it will opt for a design that costs itself less. Of course, this fails to consider the thousands of riders who will be frozen out of the Compass system: expecting street- and shelter homeless to carry and maintain Compass cards is unrealistic; another instance in which TransLink failed to think like a rider in setting up Compass.

As Jarvis conceded during the presentation, the faregates create "lots of benefits for TransLink", but also create "a system that becomes more locked down." TransLink itself did not realize the importance of the single-ride tickets: "We didn't know what we didn't know."

Geoff Meggs, Ian Jarvis                         Clr. Geoff Meggs, TransLink CEO Ian Jarvis

At the moment, provincial funds as well as donations from local groups and individuals pay for Faresaver tickets, which are handed out by service groups working directly with the homeless. Meanwhile, homeless Vancouverites will hop the bus or SkyTrain even without a fare, throwing themselves on the mercy of drivers and transit cops as they do so.

A way out of homelessness

"I've always depended on the kindness of strangers" is not a coherent system, and it's not dignified for the riders themselves, who risk a $173 fine they have little hope of paying off. Karen O’Shannacery of Lookout Society said that these riders "ask themselves, 'Do I go for that job?' 'Do I go to that appointment?'" She added that those benign-looking faregates put broke riders even more at risk of being "marginalized and criminalized." Transit should be a homeless Lower Mainlander's best friend, and not her enemy, asserted O'Shannacery: it's "an essential service for ending homelessness."

Karen O'Shannacery
Karen O'Shannacery

O'Shannacery knows what she's talking about, having gone from living on the streets as a teenager to receiving the Order of British Columbia for her work with the homeless over a 40-year career.

A difficult fix

According to City Councillor Geoff Meggs, roughly 1300 people in the Lower Mainland spend any given night in a homeless shelter, around 450 of whom have been able to springboard back out of the shelter system and back into permanent housing. We also have around 300 homeless who live on the street. In order to get to work, job interviews, counseling, or medical appointments, these folks have to take transit.

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