Chances are you've never seen a bus ticket, let alone used one to pay for a ride. Plastic has largely replaced paper as most Metro riders, or their employers, prepay through Orca cards. On Metro, as elsewhere, cash is no longer king. Little more than a quarter of all riders slip bills and coins into Metro's fare boxes. Counted by Metro as a part of these cash transactions, bus tickets are rarer still -- a small sliver of the total number of cash fares paid each year.
For a few, however, bus tickets are worth immeasurably more than the value printed on them. Getting one means you can get to a shelter across town instead of having to sleep on the street.
Humble and increasingly obscure, bus tickets are a hot commodity among the homeless. For one thing, they're not easy to come by. Human services providers give them to clients for free, but only for a limited time -- that is, until they run out.
To say bus tickets are free is misleading. Homeless people may not pay for them, but social service agencies do.
Metro Transit's Human Services Bus Ticket Program sets aside $1.5 million in bus ticket booklets each year, split between King County and the City of Seattle. In Seattle, the Human Services Department then sells them at an 80 percent discount to homeless service providers in limited annual allotments.
Once they run out, they're gone. Shelters and other social service agencies can't buy more until the next year.
In 2010, Human Services sold roughly 36,500 bus ticket booklets, which contain up to 20 tickets per booklet, to 61 Seattle agencies.
Bus tickets may get a boost. In the wake of a recent council vote that will end Metro's Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle, King County is considering increasing the number of discounted bus tickets agencies can buy, putting the little slips of paper at the forefront of a big debate about how best to provide transit access to Seattle's poorest citizens.
Burning through booklets
Shelter providers say right now, as more people are out of work and sometimes out of their homes, the demand for bus tickets is greater than ever. At Mary's Place, a women's day shelter at Fourth Avenue and Bell Street, homeless families are streaming through the door in unprecedented numbers, Executive Director Mary Hartman said.
In Aug. 2010, one homeless family a week turned up at the day center, Hartman said. Last month, Mary's Place saw a family a day. As a result, the center will run through its store of bus tickets -- meant to last an entire year -- in about six weeks.
Mary's Place provides the bus tickets to get the women and children to night shelters and medical appointments, she said.
"It's life-saving," Hartman said of bus tickets. "They'd sleep in their cars, in the emergency room or at the airport trying not to be noticed."
Some families will walk to a night shelter, but it's impossible for most, she said. "You can't [walk] with a kid and a stroller and everything you own on your back and your bottles and formula," Hartman said.
Other shelters have begun to ration bus tickets in anticipation of running out early.
For the entire month of August, Operation Nightwatch, a shelter that sends people to other shelters when it's full, didn't hand out tickets, said its director Rick Reynolds.
This year is actually better than most, Reynolds said: There are many years when he cuts off bus tickets for the entire summer.
He wants to preserve enough tickets for the winter months, when it's cold and raining, and people rely on bus tickets to get from Operation Nightwatch, in the Central District, to locations like the Millionair Club Charity in Belltown.
With shelter space limited, being able to ride the bus, rather than walk, gives those seeking shelter a competitive edge. At ROOTS, a shelter in the University District that serves young adults, roughly 40 people show up each night for one of 27 mats, said Executive Director Kristine Cunningham.
Bus tickets are a consolation prize for those who don't make it to ROOTS in time for a mat. The shelter gives those turned away a bus ticket, usually without finding them a bed elsewhere, Cunningham said.
ROOTS uses bus tickets as payment, too. Some at the shelter get bus tickets by doing chores such as sweeping or cleaning mats. But bus tickets are so precious that ROOTS can only pay the equivalent of $5 an hour in bus tickets for a chore, Cunningham said, which displeases many.
"I hear about it, let me tell you," Cunningham said. Even though they are discounted, ROOTS has to pay cash for the tickets, she added.
At Mary's Place, Hartman said she's grateful the agency can buy discounted tickets. But she's doubtful the agencies could ever buy enough tickets to make up for the loss of the Ride Free Area.
To help all the women in need get where they need to go," Hartman said, "it would have to be a staggering number."