Taken For A Ride: Fare Is Unfair, Say Homeless

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How much should it cost to get to a homeless shelter? Some clients of the Charles H. Gay Homeless Shelter on Wards Island, who use the M35 bus from Harlem to get there, are having trouble getting their $2 city transit fares covered, and are calling for rides to be free.

According to Turhan White, an activist with Picture the Homeless, police officers have been riding the bus “for years” and arresting people for such offenses as fare-beating, loitering and disorderly conduct.

“Basically that bus should be free,” said White. “It’s the only form of public transportation to go and come back. Volunteers of America” – which runs the shelter – “does have vans, but they only run at certain times.”

White says homeless people have come to him saying they have been arrested on the M35, which starts at East 125th Street and Lexington Avenue, traverses the Triborough Bridge and ends on Wards Island. “Sometimes they already have an undercover officer on the bus” as it pulls up to the first stop, he said. “He doesn’t have a uniform on but you know he’s a cop.” In defiance, many homeless men and their supporters have begun putting just one penny in the fare box instead of the normal $2 fare. Turhan says the officer points out who has not paid and they are taken off the bus and on to jail.

A half-dozen members of Picture the Homeless held a small demonstration on June 5 at the start of the bus’s route and got on the bus with just pennies in hand. A supervisor with New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority, which oversees city buses, walked over to two police officers on the corner, alerting them to the situation. But whether it was because they were on another assignment, did not want to delay a rush-hour bus, refrained from making arrests in front of a photojournalist, or something else – the officers decided not to remove the protesters from the bus, which was allowed to continue its 15-minute trip to Wards Island.
The transit supervisor stated at the time, “The fare is $2 for you, for me, the homeless, the weirdos…that’s all I know.”

The Department of Homeless Services says it gives out around 150 Metrocards every day for use by the clients of Wards Island’s four men’s shelters. And Volunteers of America, which runs three of the shelters, says it’s helping, too.

“About three or four years ago, to try and be of some assistance, we started to run a shuttle with our own vans back and forth from Wards Island into the city, and we meet with the MTA regularly and the neighborhood associations. But I can tell you we have not been notified of late that the problem has increased or anything like that. The shuttle is available, as are MetroCards to the clients,” says Terre Pettitte, with the organization. “We have known for several years that there were arrests made on that particular city bus, but it’s for anyone trying to jump the fare. It doesn’t just pertain to the homeless, or it doesn’t just pertain to our homeless shelter.”

But White from Picture the Homeless says the efforts to pay homeless men’s way just don’t work out logistically. His group has written letters and e-mails both DHS and Volunteers of America about the situation, but received no response, he said.

Spokesmen for the MTA and NYPD both said fare-beating is illegal and punishable, but were not aware of an enforcement focus on the M35 bus. “There is no separate fare for the homeless. We understand there are some issues, but there is no separate fare for the homeless,” said Paul Fleuranges, NYC Transit vice president of corporate communications.

White maintains the current situation is unfair. “They pull clients off the bus and check for warrants or who didn’t pay their fare and never took care of it. Basically they are criminalizing homelessness.”

– David Greene

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