No home and no way to get to help

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State lawmakers showed signs of support this session for legislation that would allow non-profit agencies serving the homeless to purchase discounted bus passes.

The proposal described in this article passed the House and Senate conference committee. Click here for Session Weekly article.


Under the proposed legislation, twenty agencies serving the homeless could purchase half-price Super Saver bus passes and tokens on behalf of clients. Advocates argue that the legislation is crucial to connect homeless people with housing, health care, job training, and other basic services.

“The bus pass is what connects all of the social services together,” said Josh Lang, Human Rights Program Coordinator at St. Stephen’s Human Services. “Without the bus, it’s just a bunch of social service agencies all around the city that nobody can get to.”

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, co-wrote the bill with St. Stephen’s Human Services, and received support from a bipartisan group of legislators. Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored a similar version in the House. The Senate version passed as part of the Senate Transportation Omnibus bill. The bill has now moved on to conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions. Lawmakers will then send the bill back to the House and Senate for passage.

At $59, a 31-day bus pass takes up about a third of monthly welfare benefits for single adults in the Twin Cities. In contrast, the University of Minnesota’s U-Pass program provides semester-long bus passes for just $84. The university subsidizes the program to keep the rates low.

Although some social service agencies provide bus cards, they typically pay the full rate. Advocates say that this puts a burden on agencies with limited funds. Disabled individuals can apply for a program that reduces bus fares to fifty cents, but social service providers say that many homeless people have not been formally diagnosed with physical or mental illnesses and have not yet applied for Social Security.

Last year, St. Stephen’s embarked on a unique lobbying effort, gathering video testimony in favor of lower bus fares from over 400 low-income Minnesotans. The agency posted the videos on YouTube and publicized the testimonies at the Capitol.

Participants talked about needing to take the bus for dozens of reasons, including attending medical appointments, job training programs, and food shelves. “It’s a really powerful statement,” Rich Johnson, one of the main organizers of the testimony, said.

Despite these efforts, the bus fare increased by a quarter in October, leading advocates to focus on building support for the non-profit discount.

Homeless and formerly homeless adults testified at the House and Senate in support of the legislation. Elsa Cardenas, 39, who testified twice, said that the legislation would have helped her tremendously. When Cardenas, 39, moved to Minneapolis from Texas last year, she struggled with drug addiction. She became homeless and slept at a local shelter.

Without money for bus fare, Cardenas had to walk everywhere in the middle of winter. Cardenas said that she and other homeless people would trek to the end of the Skyway and then walk several blocks outside to Catholic Charities to eat meals. She remembers when the temperature dropped to twenty degrees below zero last January. “That walk was hell for me,” she said. “Those couple of blocks just about killed me. It was so cold.”

Eventually, Cardenas connected with Twin Cities Rise, a job training and placement program. The agency supplied her with a bus pass. “If I had to pay for the bus fare on my own, there’s no way I would be able to continue my job training,” she said. “The whole point of becoming sober and trying to make something out of my life would be meaningless.”

Cardenas said she worries about homeless people who are not connected to services. “How can they afford to even get to an agency?” she said. “To have just that little bit of support is so important.”

Madeleine Baran is a freelance journalist specializing in labor and poverty issues. Her articles have appeared in The New York Daily News, Dollars & Sense, Clamor, The New Standard, and other publications.

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