RTD’s New Low-Income Rider Program Casts A Wide Net, But Many Of Denver’s Homeless Have Slipped Through

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Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Kevin Beasley said he’s been homeless off an on for about two years, and has used passes from the St. Francis Center to ride RTD’s buses and trains. Those are increasingly hard to come by, he said.

Kevin Beasley woke up early. He needed to get about 20 miles southeast to Englewood for the first day of a new job — a tough task considering he was staying in a low-rent motel room off I-70 in Aurora.

The trip could be worth it though: After a messy divorce, legal troubles and a descent into alcoholism two years ago, Beasley ended up homeless and worked sporadic day labor gigs. This new job was a chance to get past that. He said the company told him it would give him a chance to eventually move into maintenance work — his dream job.

“It was a perfect opportunity,” he said.

But first, he had to get there. Beasley thought he might be able to get a last-minute bus ticket at the St. Francis Center’s employment office in Cheesman Park. But when he got there, it was too late. The nonprofit that serves the city’s homeless population had run out of passes for the morning. 

“It was a whole day’s work, gone to waste,” he said.

Beasley said he’s missed a half-dozen professional opportunities because he couldn’t get to them. He’s walked for more than two hours for others. And it’s a relatively new problem; in the past, he said, St. Francis gave him a monthly Regional Transportation District pass so he could get to work and other appointments. 

“I knew that was one bill that I didn't have to worry about,” he said. “The rest of my paycheck was definitely going to go towards the necessities as far as food, clothing, shelter. Transportation was the last of my worries.”

Now, it’s near the top. One big reason why is an ambitious new RTD program meant to make discounted fares directly accessible to tens of thousands of low-income riders who’d been paying full freight — $3 for a three-hour pass. But to help cover the cost of the new program, called LiVE, the existing nonprofit program saw its rules change significantly. 

Those changes went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, and have become a new barrier for some of RTD’s neediest passengers. 

“That’s exactly what it looks like,” said Shontel Lewis, who sits on RTD’s 15-member board of directors.

“It is hurting our poorest citizens,” she added. “And that's not OK.”

Job boards and computers available to employment-seekers line the walls in the basement of Warren Church.

It’s a St. Francis Center-operated facility that could soon house dozens of the nonprofits’ clients. Ken Knoblock, who was St. Francis’ director of employment services before leaving the organization last week, said it helps stabilize people and connect them with employment opportunities — and transportation is a key part of that. 

“We have dozens of people coming in every single day just begging for tickets,” he said. 

Many of those clients were recently incarcerated, are dealing with health issues — mental, physical or both, or are in some degree of homelessness. In other words, Knoblock said, they’re often in crisis.

Previously, St. Francis could purchase tickets from RTD at a 50 percent discount and hand them out to those clients. It gave out 5,000 last year, Knoblock said. Now, the nonprofit can only give out fares it buys at a discount to the few clients — fewer than five out of about 2,000, Knoblock said — who’ve completed the online LiVE application. 

“It sounds really great on paper,” Knoblock said of RTD’s new program. “And then when we got into it a little bit more, we realized it was going to be really difficult for people in emergency and crisis to deal with.”

LiVE enrollees receive a card that they must show every time they board an RTD bus or encounter a fare checker on a train. For a population whose living situation changes daily, Knoblock said, keeping track of important documents is a difficult task.

“If they have IDs and social security cards, birth certificates, they're very frequently stolen or lost,” Knoblock said. “The idea of them being able to keep a LiVE card is kind of silly.”

Other providers are having trouble navigating the new program too. At the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, the LiVE program has turned into a time suck for staff and clients.

“Not only do we as the agency have to apply to participate in this discount program, our clients also have to apply,” said Joanna Kenney, CCH’s department administrator for residential services. “So now they’re proving again that they’re disabled or low income. And that gets exhausting for people to have to do that over and over.” 

The online application requires income documentation and a photograph, but, Kenney said, most of the coalition’s clients don’t have cell phones. And because of federal privacy laws, Kenney said, case managers can’t use their own phones to take a clients’ photo.

“We take that really, really seriously,” she said. “You can't even really take a picture of a client and then delete it.” 

At Jewish Family Service, a southeast Denver-based nonprofit that helps the working poor stay out of homelessness, the extra hoops have kept some clients off of buses. Shelly Hines, director of the family safety net program, said LiVE cards can take two weeks to come in the mail — and clients’ transportation needs are far more immediate. So some staff members have given clients rides home and Hines now keeps an envelope of dollar bills handy for last-minute needs.

“In practice, we don’t try to give cash to clients,” Hines said. “We just try not to ever do that. But in these emergency situations we just felt like our hands are tied and we don’t know what to do. People just need to get home.”

A handful of the major homeless service providers say they have started purchasing full-price tickets from RTD which they can distribute as they see fit. But it also means those organizations can only afford to buy half as many as they used to. That could result in thousands fewer bus passes for the city’s poorest residents over the course of a year.

“We have to make decisions every day on who gets tickets and who doesn’t, which feels pretty crummy,” Knoblock said.

The shake-up to RTD’s discounted passes was years in the making.

For more than 25 years, hundreds of Denver-area nonprofits, local governments and school districts were able to buy RTD passes for half-off. They could hand them out or sell them to their own clients as they wanted to, as long as those clients made under approximately $22,000 a year. In fiscal year 2018, RTD sold $6.8 million worth of passes to nonprofits for just $3.4 million.

The program was popular enough that it became a financial strain on the transit agency. It ran $700,000 over budget in 2016, which led RTD to add caps both to the number of agencies in the program and the number of passes they could buy.

Then in 2018, an RTD-convened working group of school districts, advocacy groups, governments, business interests and others recommended a fare restructuring that aimed to make them more equitable. The board approved it that fall.

One outcome was the LiVE program, which could have a much broader reach than the nonprofit program because qualifying riders could sign up directly. That program kicked off in 2019. 

But any discount — whether it's the employer-sponsored EcoPass common among white-collar workers in downtown Denver or the LiVE card for low-income riders — is, in effect, lost revenue for RTD. To help minimize that, the agency’s fare restructuring raised prices and cut some discounts. 

The discount nonprofits received fell from 50 percent to 40 percent. They could no longer buy and distribute monthly passes. And, importantly, nonprofits could only give passes purchased at a discount to clients who had signed up for the LiVE program. That requirement came at the direction of the working group because it wanted passengers who received the discount to be treated equally, said RTD CFO Heather McKillop. 

The nonprofits were previously supposed to verify clients’ income before giving them discounted passes. After the changes, nonprofits would now help their clients to enroll in LiVE.

“We really thought that was going to be a huge administrative burden lifted from these organizations,” McKillop said. 

But then, McKillop said, just before the LiVE program launched, some nonprofits said they weren’t actually doing income verification.

“Which was kind of a big surprise,” she said.

Knoblock bristled at the suggestion that his staff were handing out passes to people who didn’t qualify for them. 

“We actually had a pretty robust system for tracking and making sure that everybody that got a discounted ticket qualified under income,” he said. “Most of the folks we work with are homeless. So it doesn't take too much investigation to realize that they fall under the income guidelines.”

Five nonprofit service providers that serve Denver’s homeless or near homeless populations — the Denver Rescue Mission, Catholic Charities, St. Francis Center, Jewish Family Service, and Colorado Coalition for the Homeless — told a reporter that they verify their clients’ income as a matter of course. In some cases, it’s necessary for various grants the organizations receive. RTD says it audited nine mid-sized and large agencies in its program in 2016 and all passed.

RTD couldn’t afford to both maintain its nonprofit program as it was and launch the LiVE program.

The agency also wanted to simplify its different discount programs, said senior revenue manager Monika Treipl-Harnke. RTD is trying to streamline the application process and expects nonprofits will get better at helping their clients enroll, she said. 

“I feel that people haven’t given it a chance,” Treipl-Harnke said of the application. “It has very basic questions.”

Current enrollment numbers are at about 4,600. More people are making it through the application process as of late — from about 125 a week in November 2019 to about 250 a week since January. That’s still lower than the 2,000 people per month that McKillop said in November the agency was hoping for. Initial modeling by a consultant estimated enrollment would hit 38,000 in 2020 and 79,000 by 2022, though RTD now says those figures were developed for budgetary purposes and not a stated goal. 

RTD now estimates about 52,000 regular customers in the district are eligible for the LiVE program and don’t receive any other discounts.

“This is a good number to be looking at right now to get a good realistic sense of who might qualify and take advantage of this program,” spokeswoman Laurie Huff said. 

But that target should be much higher, said Deya Zavala, executive director of Mile High Connects, a transit-focused group of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. Citing the methodology used in a 2016 Colorado Fiscal Institute study, Zavala said about 265,000 individuals in the Denver metro could qualify for the LiVE program. And transportation, she said, has become more important as Denver rents rise.

“Folks are being slowly pushed further and further and further out of the city center,” she said.

A marketing campaign for all of RTD’s discount programs, including the LiVE program, rolled out across buses and trains in February. There are also plans to hire an outreach worker who would roam the district and help people enroll.

Most nonprofit staffers CPR News spoke with for this story said they want RTD to re-establish its nonprofit program as it existed before. Any major changes would have to go through RTD’s board, Treipl-Harnke said. But she acknowledged the LiVE program isn’t working for people in crisis.

"We haven't quite solved it. And I don't know if we can with the existing program,” she said.

RTD could make changes, but money will be a big concern.

Board Chair Angie Rivera-Malpiede said the original intention of LiVE was meant to make fares more affordable for the working poor. And if it’s hurting riders experiencing homelessness, she said she’s ready to look into changing how the program works.

“We've got to figure out some kind of plan of action to serve everybody,” she said.

But, she said, what the agency can do is limited by fiscal realities — sales tax revenue growth is slowing and agency executives say it’s providing more service than it can afford. RTD forecast the LiVE program would cost the agency $3.4 million in lost revenue in 2020.

“RTD is in a huge financial gap right now,” Rivera-Malpiede said. “So we're looking at everything.”

Board member Doug Tisdale is encouraged by the recent bump in enrollment and said RTD is doing “very successfully” with LiVE thus far. But the challenges faced by homeless service nonprofits and their clients concern him. 

“Let's see how it works for a year,” he said. “Then if we think that's not how it turned out, we can change it.”

Board member Shontel Lewis said RTD’s neediest riders can’t afford to wait that long. She wants to convene a meeting between agency staff and nonprofits to come up with possible solutions. 

Nathaniel Minor/CPR News
Shontel Lewis sits on RTD's board of directors.

It’s a personal cause for Lewis, who grew up in Denver’s then-impoverished Five Points neighborhood in the 1990s. Lewis said she attended the more affluent Palmer Elementary School five miles to the southeast because it offered a better academic opportunity than her neighborhood school — but only if she could get there. 

“We were responsible, as kids, for waking ourselves up and getting on the bus,” she said. “And if we missed the bus, we didn't go to school that day.”

The LiVE program has set up a similar dynamic, Lewis said. It has the potential to spread opportunity and change lives, she said. But so far, it’s not reaching those who need it most.

“We cannot tout that we have discount programs if people don’t have access to them,” she said. “Period.”

RTD’s board will discuss the LiVE program at a meeting Tuesday night.