Love and exact change: Building compassion for homeless into Vancouver's transit system

You can tell a lot about a city by whom it lets on the bus.

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#20 Bus, Hastings at McLean: I board the bus with two other men: a First Nations guy wearing an unseasonably heavy leather jacket and a man whose t-shirt reveals a series of track marks. The bus driver, a Sikh dude wearing mirror-shades, nods as they walk past me whilst I fumble for my ticket. By the time I've made a few chicken-scratches in my notebook, Track-Marks has nodded off in his seat.

The Waldorf: Hastings at McLean

#20 Bus, Hastings at Hawks: A man in filthy jeans and a Power Rangers t-shirt, probably in his seventies, holds up a plastic transit-pass sleeve as he boards. The sleeve is empty. The driver nods, the man boards. At the next stop, a guy in a motorized wheelchair, his ankles bent at impossible angles, whirrs aboard and expertly maneuvers into the handicapped seating area. Behind him is a tall man in khakis and a yellow reflective vest. He's a Translink supervisor. The driver will later tell me that the supervisors are making sure that drivers are keeping speeds down to 30km/hr as they approach the inebriated-pedestrian-heavy Main and Hastings intersection: "People there are high or drunk. We don't want to hit them."

Expo line, B-line: lifelines

Peter Greenwell, Homeless Program Coordinator for Collingwood Neighbourhood House, argues that access to public transportation is one of the support services needed to get people out of homelessness. He told me that there are two "growth areas" in Vancouver's homeless population: people homeless for less than a month and those homeless for more than a year. The less-than-a-month homeless population consists mostly of those recently down on their luck and/or new to the city.

These folks are within striking distance of getting back on their feet, and use transit to go to job interviews, medical appointments, shelters, and employment services offices. Disrupting their ability to do so, says Greenwell, pushes them closer towards more long-term homelessness.

Besides bus drivers' tendency to be nice guys and gals (or at least their unwillingness to start arguments with strangers in the DTES), BC Housing uses Provincial funds to distribute transit tickets to homeless Vancouverites, so that they can get to the aforementioned medical appointments, shelters, or job interviews. As of 2010, this program was distributing 80,000 tickets and 440 passes per year to those in need.

This system will be disrupted once the Compass Card replaces the paper FareCard system, though. Fare gates and reusable cards would require that the whole ticket distribution system be reinvented. Councillor Geoff Meggs said that we should indeed replace that system, even if only because it's been deemed necessary already at a Provincial level.  

City Hall sees transit access not as a luxury for the homeless, but as a necessary part of a system to get our most vulnerable back on their feet; in other words, to stop managing homelessness and actually end it.

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