A homeless man that Andy Felth helped get an identification card had struggled to gather the necessary documents – proof of Social Security, proof of U.S. citizenship, proof of residency – without steady access to transportation. 

Felth is a volunteer for the San Antonio Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters (H.O.P.E.) Team ID Recovery program. He shared his experiences with the VIA Metropolitan Transit board of trustees at its Tuesday meeting before the board approved a pilot fare assistance program. 

Without an identification card, homeless individuals have a hard time applying for housing or jobs, Felth said. This client needed an ID but had a job that gave him no flexible time off. So the H.O.P.E. Team gave him a 24-hour bus pass to use at his discretion.

“So this person either had the option of not going to work or [not getting an ID],” Fleth said. “So in this case, a bus pass enabled that individual to go on their own [to a Social Security office] rather than choosing between an ID and job. Just the access to transportation the bus pass helped them not make that tough choice.”

The new fare assistance program will provide a 25 percent discount on bus passes – daily, weekly, and monthly – to nonprofit, social service, and governmental organizations that serve primarily clients living below the federal poverty line.

Though VIA already provides some reduced rates for certain riders, this is the first program it is implementing to serve low-income San Antonians.

Priscilla Ingle, vice president of customer relations and sales, told the board Tuesday that VIA has received requests for passes to serve low-income clients.

“Area nonprofits have limited resources, but they do have clients they want to serve and those clients have a need to travel to medical appointments, food banks, and social services,” Ingle said.

Organizations that buy discounted bus passes from VIA can either sell them for no more than the reduced price or simply give the passes to their clients.

Transportation is key to helping homeless people gather all the necessary documents to procure an ID from the Department of Public Safety, Felth said.

“What may seem simple to us may become very complex for some of our clients for a multitude of reasons,” Felth said. “We have some people who haven’t had IDs for 20 years.”

Other major cities’ bus systems also offer reduced prices to nonprofit organizations. The Houston METRO gives agencies a 13 percent discount on a $200 minimum order; Dallas’s DART provides a book of 10 day passes for $36 when it would ordinarily cost between $60 and $120, depending on where riders want to go; and the CATS system in Charlotte, North Carolina, provides a 25 percent discount on bus passes and one-way tickets.

VIA CEO and President Jeff Arndt pointed out that these other bus systems also charge more than VIA does.

“We start with a very reasonable fare,” Arndt said. “But the clients these … agencies serve probably don’t even have the means to pay our fare.”

New board Chair Rey Saldaña thanked the members of nonprofits who spoke at the VIA board meeting.

“We are a transit agency, and in many cases, we don’t get to hear the underlying stories or the trials or difficulties that some folks deal with on an everyday basis,” Saldaña said.

Ingle said the program would require about 30 days to implement. She told the board to expect an update on the pilot program by November.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.