Being homeless and trying to get around town has its challenges.
Since the creation of Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village in 2014, residents who have lived in either facility for a minimum of 48 hours have been given annual bus passes to get around Gainesville. The passes give them a reliable means of transportation to reach necessary services and employment opportunities.
“They go to the downtown area to visit other friends,” said Theresa Lowe, executive director for the Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry. “They go to St. Francis House for services. They go to Shands and (Veterans Affairs) for medical care. They go shopping, so they go to different shopping areas.”
But making it to the bus stop isn’t always easy.
According to Grace Marketplace management, almost 20 percent of Grace residents are disabled, and about 10 percent of them use some form of assistive mobility device. All Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village residents must walk a quarter of a mile to reach one of two bus stops on 39th Avenue. There are three bus routes available: routes 25, 26 and 39.
“I’ve seen a couple residents that have those portable stools that you take to events,” Lowe said. “They get part way down the road and stop and take a breath and then go on for the next distance.”
Anthony Martinson, a new Grace Marketplace resident from Miami, got his first bus pass Wednesday. Martinson is visually impaired and relies solely on the bus as a means of transportation because he can’t legally drive a car.
“People with disabilities, especially physical handicaps, like for instance me and my vision, or someone in a wheelchair, they have to get themselves all the way out there,” Martinson said. “There’s not even a sidewalk that goes down that road because there’s drainage ditches on both sides, and they can’t ride on the side of the road because it’s at an angle.”
The quarter-mile stretch of asphalt separating a daily ridership of 700 Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village residents from their home and the bus stop is 28th Avenue. These residents make up about 16 percent of Gainesville’s daily riders, according to Gainesville Regional Transit System spokesman Chip Skinner.
As a result, pedestrian safety is in question. Residents walk in the road because there are no sidewalks, and the roads are not lit at night.
“It was a street that was used to get from 39th Avenue to the entrance of the Department of Correction,” Lowe said. “It wasn’t a road that was ever intended for regular travel.”
Nevertheless, the length of the road does meet national standards in the United States for both able-bodied and disabled persons. Skinner said the national average is roughly a quarter mile to walk to a bus stop for both disabled and able-bodied people.
Given the configuration of the road and Florida’s weather conditions, the circumstances have left some dissatisfied.
“When it’s 90 degrees out on a road that’s not shaded and without a sidewalk, trying to maneuver in a wheelchair when you’re barely able to push the wheelchair is a challenge,” Lowe said.
However, not all residents consider the walk an inconvenience. Donald Small, a Grace Marketplace resident, considers the walk an opportunity to exercise and is grateful for the bus-pass system.
“Actually, I think walking a quarter of a mile is convenient health-wise, and it’s not that far since I got a free bus pass,” Small said. “And it’s good for a year. I don’t think a quarter of a mile walk every time I need to go into town or use the bus is bad at all.”
Small noted that residents with disabilities are usually able to reach the bus stop with help from others and should change their outlook on the situation at hand.
“Life has difficulties,” Small said. “The thing about it is you have to meet those difficulties and try to get over it. Those with physical ailments? You didn’t have a bus pass, and now you have one.”
A simple solution would be to relocate the bus stop to the Grace Marketplace parking lot. But as it stands, the buses’ inability to enter Grace Marketplace is both a matter of infrastructure and staffing. RTS busses don’t have enough space to turnaround in the parking lot, and doing so would require a bus operator to watch the bus as it reverses and ride along with drivers.
“They have the ability to back up, but by statutes they’re not allowed to,” Lowe said. “A bus can come down the road and turn into the driveway, but they can’t get out of the driveway without backing up and they’re not allowed to do that.”
Creating the space necessary to warrant relocating the bus stop could mean reducing tent space in Dignity Village.
“Maybe 15 to 20 tents would be affected,” Lowe said. “And I don’t know if we would be able to relocate them in a different part of Dignity Village.”
The bus-pass system has spawned other unforeseen challenges for city officials. The Gainesville City Commission purchases 2,000 bus passes at an annual cost of $15,000, or $7.50 each, from the Regional Transit System. Giving the free passes to those in need has a created a black market for the passes. Three bus passes have been invalidated in 2016 alone because they appeared online for sale.
Lowe said the formatting of the bus pass itself may be to blame.
“The first year we had the bus passes, they were not the swipe passes that they are now,” Lowe said. “So we were able to laminate the bus pass to a photograph of the person to whom the bus pass was issued. That made it a little bit more difficult to trade or sell your bus pass.”
The swipe-card format doesn’t have a picture but does have an ID number, which is recorded by the Grace Marketplace staff upon issuance.
The personal hygiene of Grace Marketplace and Dignity Village residents has also been a source of discomfort for some riders. If enough people complain, they may be asked to leave the bus.
“Individuals may have a grotesque smell to them when they’re entering the bus, which offends our passengers and sometimes our operators as well,” Skinner said.
But Lowe said all Grace Marketplace staffers can do is ensure the facilities are accessible.
“We have showers available for the folks at Grace and the folks at Dignity Village,” Lowe said. “We have a clothing closet so people can get clean clothes. We have a laundromat. Folks have the ability to take advantage of hygiene opportunities. I can’t force anyone to do that.”
Residents are also bringing dogs they claim are service animals on the bus. There have been instances where flea-infested dogs have directly resulted in busses being fumigated.
The Gainesville City Commission will meet this summer to determine if the bus-pass system will be renewed from 2018 to 2019. Before then, Martinson has a message for city officials.
“When you talk about this, don’t consider what could go wrong before you consider how much it could benefit the people that really do need it,” he said.
Discontinuing the system could have serious implications for residents who rely exclusively on the busses for transportation.
“Without that transportation option,” Skinner said, “a lot of times that is a hindrance on someone that is homeless on getting the services they need to better their lives.”