What if getting a teenager out of homelessness was as simple as hailing them a ride?
It just might be, according to organizers of a new pilot project.
A new project is using ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber to help some of society’s most vulnerable populations: people experiencing homelessness and domestic violence.
Having reliable transportation is expensive and is often a barrier to jobs, food, health care and social supports. Some advocates call it the “invisible disability.”
Six Minnesota agencies, including two in St. Cloud, are testing the idea for Open Your Heart, a nonprofit that supports other nonprofits.
For many people, transportation is taken for granted. But when you watch every penny, reliable, consistent transportation is hard to find and expensive, said Ed Murphy, executive director at Open Your Heart.
Owning and maintaining a car can be the difference in many rural areas to keeping your job or ending up homeless.
Outside large metro areas, public transportation doesn’t exist. Where it does, it isn’t as robust as it needs to be — because it’s expensive for local governments to support.
Low-skilled jobs can often be in industrial areas, not traditionally served by bus routes. They also often include second- and third-shift working hours, outside normal bus schedules.
What does that look like?
A mom who works two jobs, one late into the evening, has to walk miles home at night because the buses have long stopped running.
It means a 20-something misses a critical health appointment, because the taxi showed up two hours late.
It means a man takes three buses to get to work and relies on a favor from a friend to get home.
So what is one to do if getting and keeping that job, which gets and keeps that apartment, is literally out of reach?
Hopefully, Murphy says, you can use an app.
In St. Cloud, Anna Marie’s Alliance and Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud have volunteered test the plan. They are getting $10,000 each. Murphy said that should fund 520 or so rides, based on the average Lyft ride.
Each agency has an account through Lyft. Staff members can hail a ride for a client to get to work, with all the ease of the mobile app and linked credit card. The cost covers time and miles.
Four other agencies in Mankato, Moorhead and Rochester will also try the project. Why these cities?
“These were the only four that Uber and Lyft had entered,” Murphy said, besides Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Lyft only came to St. Cloud in February 2017, with Uber following shortly after.
Why can’t people do it for themselves?
They can, but the expense of both the rides and the smart phone needed to hail them can be too much. The apps usually require a major credit card and possibly a bank account.
For youth and domestic violence victims, those may have been unattainable, or they just don’t know how to get them.
“We wanted to make sure that this utility can benefit very low-income people,” Murphy said.
In the past, Open Your Heart tried to address the issue by funding car repair services at agencies or purchasing vehicles for agencies.
“But we’ve never had a right to the consumer solution before,” Murphy said. “Uber and Lyft provides an an option from point A to point B to people … that didn’t exist before.”
The hope is Lyft and Uber can fill the gaps in bus schedules and routes until a more sustainable form of transportation can be established.
That means families and youth can do all the things they need to do to survive in our society: get driver’s licenses, go on job interviews, find safe care for their children, take care of themselves physically and mentally and utilize public programs designed to help them become stable.
That’s a lot of rides.
Right now, staff members fill the gaps.
At a domestic violence shelter in Mankato, case managers were regularly getting $1,000 in reimbursement for transporting clients. Sometimes that means extra hours, on nights and weekends.
There’s a hidden cost, too. The hours case managers spend in the car are hours they aren’t directly helping clients.
At Anna Marie’s, case managers and other staff often take women and kids to medical and legal appointments, said Johanna Klinker, manager of community advocacy services.
“But we’re limited as to how much we can do,” she said. “Often appointments are at the same time on different sides of town. It gets to be very problematic and it’s very expensive.”
She said the volume varies, but they’ll give four to 10 rides a day. Evenings and weekends are difficult because staff is limited.
At Catholic Charities, they plan to use the project for women, children and youth experiencing homelessness and domestic violence, said Stacy Pederson, manager of programs that help at-risk and homeless youth.
The program is already in use at the Domus House and Emily’s Place, Pederson said. Both are transitional housing for women and young children, if they have them.
Domus uses more cabs than the youth programs. From May of 2016 to April of 2017, it paid for 168 rides, costing about $2,000 in cab fare.
Pederson gave the example of one Domus resident who had a vehicle in for repairs. Every day, she had to make two day care stops and then get to the St. Cloud Technical and Community College.
“We’re talking cab fare of $30, to day care and school, and back to Domus,” Pederson said.
At the Youth House, transitional housing for youth ages 16 to 24, estimates staff provides about 120 to 180 rides per year to residents. Staff also provide about 50 rides per year to homeless youth they encounter while working out in the community.
The amount provided to agencies for the pilot project should be cover those needs.
A new idea
It’s a pretty new idea to use ride-hailing companies for social services, Murphy said. Staff they worked with at Uber and Lyft hadn’t heard of the idea before.
The one exception was an assisted living facility in San Francisco, which used Lyft to transport clients.
Open Your Heart was very deliberate in including domestic violence shelters in this pilot project.
“We have heard a lot of how often victims cannot escape,” he said, especially in rural areas. “It breaks you hurt, women not being able to physically flee their abusers.”
Anna Marie’s expends a lot of energy on arranging transportation for clients.
“It’s a problem we see out clients dealing with daily,” Klinker said.
Abusers often use access to transportation and finances as ways to control victims. That means women leaving bad situations may not know how to drive or have a license. It might mean they can’t afford a car or have the credit to buy one. Their transportation is also sometimes sabotaged or damaged by abusers, including slashed tires and broken windshields.
“It’s very expensive to fix that type of damage,” Klinker said.
The shelter is a few blocks from a bus stop.
“But they often don’t have the bus tokens or the means to get the bus tokens,” she said.
Metro Bus has been helpful, teaching women how to use the bus system and sometimes women can obtain a bus pass for a limited number of rides from other agencies.
“That is usually gone very quickly, if they’re working or have a lot of appointments,” she said. “And again, bus passes are expensive.”
How does it work?
Agencies will be able to hail rides for people in the programs, automatically paying through the app. So far, Open Your Heart has had more success in planning the project with Lyft than Uber.
Lyft will adapt some things for the agencies, which will make it easy to track why someone is taking a ride as well as where they’re going. The app has something similar to the average user. An option quickly sorts rides as personal or business, making it easy to claim business expenses.
As of now, there haven’t been discussion of reduced or donated fares by ride-hailing companies. But Murphy said Lyft will throw in free rides and credits as prizes for fundraisers or events.
At the nonprofits, it’s the data that will be most helpful. They’ll learn how clients are using the services, what’s working and what’s not and what changes could be made.
Pederson said they spent a long time developing a common Catholic Charities policy for using ride-hailing services. For example, a client who doesn’t show for a ride may not be able to use the service again. The service is also supposed to be temporary, with a goal to establish more permanent transport.
How long is temporary? That depends. Pederson said she could see women using Lyft at Domus for months as they get established and ready to find their own place to live.
For now, Catholic Charities is limiting the rides to people 18 and over.
Murphy said he could see this idea take off in other ways.
He could see Open Your Heart eventually getting money directly to clients on individual Lyft accounts, as another step toward independence.
Employers who may have trouble finding workers because of transportation issues embrace a similar program. It would be similar to how Mayo in Rochester has its own bus system to transport some employees.
The sharing economy also provides new job opportunities. More established people could supplement income by driving for Lyft or Uber.
Murphy hopes that eventually this kind of program could help people before they get to a shelter.
“Once they get into the shelter, the road back is so much longer and more expensive … and incredibly disruptive,” he said.
It’s easier and cheaper to keep people in their homes — especially if that’s the cost a few Lyft rides and the cost of a new transmission.
“In the shelters, so many people are so much on the margin that one car breakdown means a lot,” he said. “It’s not a far to fall to end up in homeless shelters.”