On Nov. 16, members from several community groups fighting homelessness stood outside the Texas Harm Reduction Alliance center to celebrate securing nearly 7,000 free 31-day bus passes for unhoused Austinites.

The passes—which will be available for the next six months—were distributed to over 40 different organizations, including THRA, Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center and Trinity Center. THRA alone gave out 56 bus passes on the first day of the program.

These groups have been working to provide unhoused Austinites free transportation since spring 2019, when Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center formed an advocacy group to conduct surveys and assess the need for transportation in Austin.

Then, in July, these efforts were ramped up when Cap Metro provided free transportation to cooling centers due to extreme temperatures, said Paulette Soltani, THRA organizer. She said that initiative exposed the need for more permanent transportation in Austin, as unhoused residents had difficulties getting to doctor appointments, job interviews, harm reduction services and food banks, and waited in long lines to get free bus passes.

“No one wants to see people wrapped around a building desperately looking for transit opportunities,” said Eric Stratton, a member of the Cap Metro board of directors.

Joel Perez, a formerly unhoused Austin resident, said he used to only have access to a seven-day or even a one-day bus pass, which meant that sometimes, all of Perez’s needs, including getting harm reduction services, methadone, food and attending community court would need to be squeezed into one day.

THRA organizers and several unhoused residents testified at Cap Metro board meetings and massed 1,000 signatures calling for free transit for people experiencing homelessness.

“This is the key to my existence really,” said Barry Jones, an unhoused resident and community leader in THRA’s organization project. “I get a very small amount of money, and it doesn’t go far, but I buy the bus pass first because I got to have it.”

Emily Seales, a social worker at Sunrise Homeless Navigation Center, said this is one step forward, as these groups are working toward permanent free transit.

Seales said Cap Metro is working on rolling out electronic bus cards for all riders in 2023, so everyone will use the same card and bus drivers will not be able to identify certain people as different.

“Joy, relief, and hope are some of the many emotions that have been expressed by the people we serve as they learn about the initiative that social service providers and Cap Metro are taking,” said Christian Rodriguez, executive director of Trinity Center. “We are grateful to be able to freely give out these 31-day passes and not have to turn anyone away because we did not have enough.”