Opinion: RTD one-lap policy targets homeless people

David Heitz

Photo byColin Lloyd/Unsplash

When I experienced homelessness in 2019, I spent a lot of time on RTD property. It seemed like a place where I could inconspicuously exist. I often rested in the Union Station bus terminal and fell asleep there many times. I also rode the trains and the buses for hours on end, usually paying one fare but staying on after the completion of the route.

But under a proposed change to the rules, people wouldn’t be allowed to ride the buses and trains indefinitely, with nowhere to go. This change directly targets people experiencing homelessness, who utilize the buses, trains, and depots as places to stay warm, pass the time and escape conflict on the street.

Photo byColin Loyd/Unsplash

RTD also is proposing prohibiting “lying on the floor, bench, platform, stairway, landing, ground or conveyance” and well as “sleeping or dozing where such activity may be hazardous to the person or others or may interfere with the operation of RTD’s system or the comfort of RTD.”

In other words, go collapse from exhaustion somewhere else.

‘Living’ at Union Station

When I first became homeless, which was in December 2018, I almost never left the buses, trains, or Union Station. I had no idea where to go. This is often the case with newly homeless people. They gravitate to mass transit hubs.

I fully understand that the RTD is dealing with a system that has become unsafe. I recall several skirmishes between homeless people when I would ride Free Mall Ride for hours at a time. Once, a female impersonator, a drag queen, boarded the Free Mall Ride at 16th Street and Arapahoe and looked into my eyes. They immediately cold-cocked me.

Photo byColin Lloyd/Unsplash

I woke up on the boulevard at Speer and Arapahoe. I apparently had been carried and dumped there. My face was bleeding profusely. I walked to the Denver Health emergency room, where healthcare workers came running as I entered. I received several stitches to my lip.

That incident was enough to convince me that RTD buses are not safe. But criminalizing homelessness isn’t going to make the RTD system any safer.

Banning use of electrical outlets

Denverite broke the news this week of the RTD’s planned rule changes. They obtained documents outlining the proposed changes, which include outlawing use of an electrical outlet on RTD property.

People experiencing homelessness often used the subterranean Union Station bus terminal to recharge their phones. I imagine people not experiencing homelessness found outlets handy for recharging phones, too. Most of the outlets have already been removed.

Removing the electrical outlets was an outrageous move targeting people experiencing homelessness. Now weary travelers with only 5 percent of a charge left on their cellphone will be out of luck, too. Once a visitor’s cell phone dies, there’s no way to use navigation features so critical to out-of-towners.

Homeless people v. belligerent addicts: Two different cultures

A distinction needs to be made between homeless people and belligerent drug addicts. Not all homeless people use drugs. I was sober for the first time in many years when I became homeless. I met other sober homeless people, too. Many of them would stay at the bus station at night like I did.

The problem at Union Station stems from belligerent drug addicts who used to shoot up in the restrooms. Now a security guard stands outside the bathroom entrance and makes sure nobody takes too long. This change needed to happen for everyone’s security. Homeless people did not feel safe at Union Station around the belligerent drug addicts either.

Prohibiting people from riding a bus or train line for more than one lap around the route isn’t going to solve anything. The drug dealers will still fill Denver’s buses and trains. But someone who tries to get some sleep, stay warm, and doesn’t say a peep to anyone won’t be allowed to ride indefinitely.

I would wager there are a large number of harmless homeless people who do this. I worry what will happen to them as they are pushed out of public transportation and onto the street.

Photo byBraden Collum/Unsplash

Bus passes like gold to homeless people

There’s a simple solution to these new changes. Make bus passes more available to people experiencing homelessness. When I lived on the street, finding organizations that handed out bus passes proved difficult. I’m told it’s even worse now. Wouldn’t you think that bus passes could offer homeless people a way to find work, apply for services and get to doctor’s appointments?

But no, bus passes remain in short supply. I remember walking miles and miles some days. My feet would ache. Eventually they would blister and bleed.

‘No foul odors!’

I remember sitting in the Union Station bus terminal one night after walking from Littleton to Denver. I peeled my sock off my foot. It reeked of infection.

“No foul odors!” screamed an RTD security guard who demanded I put my shoes and socks back on. Sure enough, foul odors are prohibited on RTD property. Yet another rule targeting people experiencing homelessness who don’t get to wash their feet as often as they need to.

These changes target the wrong people. Making RTD safe again will only happen when Denver’s drug epidemic subsides, or someone finds a way to solve it.

Comments / 0

Published by

I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO

More from David Heitz

Comments / 0