Since the coronavirus pandemic first swept across Santa Clara County, the region’s top transit agency — the Valley Transportation Authority — has made massive cuts to its bus and light rail service as transit ridership has plummeted.
But for many who don’t have cars and primarily rely on public transit to get around, adjusting to the slashed service hours has been challenging — especially for the county’s residents who are living on the streets.
With dozens of routes suspended, service cuts have left many homeless people stranded, often walking for miles to get to a nearby bus station and waiting for hours before a bus arrives or chasing a bus that didn’t stop.
“It was terrible — we really depend on the buses,” said homeless resident John Betds, 70, who had to walk for nearly an hour at night before catching a bus. “We’d wait about an hour and a half, hoping the bus shows up, then we walked.”
For some, new health protocols such as social distancing have left many people waiting twice as long before they’re allowed to board.
“Oftentimes you get passed up by a bus at least once or twice before you can get on,” said RJ Ramsey, a former homeless resident who now lives at Second Street Studios. “And with only six people getting on a bus that fills up rather quickly, the driver says ‘no one can get on the bus right now — I’m at capacity.'”
In the two months since the county’s shelter-in-place order has been in effect, VTA has reduced its bus service to operate between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. — instead of midnight — Monday through Sunday.
The transit agency is seeing about 25,000 bus boardings a day — a 74 percent decrease from the pre-COVID era — while light rail ridership is down by 87 percent, VTA spokesperson Brandi Childress said.
“From the onset of this pandemic, VTA has been committed to providing safe and responsible public transit,” she said. “We prioritized the initial service adjustments to focus on transit to shelters, food pantries and health services locations during this time. We even created a map overlaying these places with our routes and plastered them at bus shelters and transit centers.”
But several crucial lines have been temporarily discontinued, including Route 500, Route 200 and notably, Route 22 — a bus many homeless people use to stay warm throughout the night.
For the unsheltered residents who rely on the 22, dubbed “Hotel 22,” that could mean freezing at night on the city’s streets, homeless advocate Shaunn Cartwright said.
“There’s great concern that this is just a backdoor way for VTA to permanently eliminate the overnight hours for line 22 as they tried before,” she said. “That would be devastating for the housed and unhoused communities that rely on that bus.”
Last February, officials recommended eliminating the route from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. as part of the 2019 transit plan but faced fierce backlash from housing advocates, who said the line was the only 24-hour transit option in the county and is frequented by homeless individuals seeking shelter.
VTA officials said temporarily discontinuing the 22 was necessary for “public safety” and to increase capacity on other buses to transport essential workers.
“As things evolved, adjustments were made for public safety, including the discontinuation of overnight service on line 22, which was predominantly being used as a mobile overnight shelter and limiting our capacity to transport essential workers because of the social distancing requirements,” Childress added. “Prior to discontinuing the overnight service, we worked with social services to outreach to customers who needed a more appropriate place to shelter.”
Still, with nearly 10,000 unsheltered residents across the county and inconsistent service routes, a late train or bus could mean missing an important doctor appointment or failing to meet curfew to receive a bed at a homeless shelter, Cartwright said.
Jerome Shaw, 44, who has been unhoused for more than a decade, stays at a shelter in Sunnyvale that requires residents to be out between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m. while staff cleans and sanitizes. Shaw, who is a columnist for this news organization’s In Your Backyard column, regularly takes lines 523 and 522 to run errands, go to the doctor or visit his storage space.
But those three hours don’t give him much time, he said. Usually, shelter residents would have until 5 p.m.
“Because of shelter-in-place they have us come back at a certain time,” Shaw said. “The buses that usually would run every 15 minutes got cut to a half hour. Then for a while it was like every hour, so we didn’t have time to run our errands. By the time the bus got to our stop and we got to where we needed to go, it was almost time to be back at the shelter.”
If an individual doesn’t return before noon, Shaw said they’ll face losing their bed at the shelter.
“Once people leave the shelter, you’re usually not allowed to come back in… so you lose your bed, completely,” he added.
VTA has said it is making improvements to its bus and train schedules. On March 25, the agency suspended all light rail service after an operator tested positive for COVID-19. Since disinfecting the trains, the agency has resumed light rail service to operate between 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the weekdays with trains arriving every half hour, according to VTA officials.
In June, light rail service will be adjusted to match bus service hours. As for the bus lines, VTA is no longer collecting fares. Officials recommend using the transit app for updates and trip planning.