Homeless people and transit advocates Friday afternoon held a “Funeral March” to protest the end of Metro Transit’s Ride Free Area in downtown Seattle.
The group marched from Westlake Park to the King County Administration building, where they planned to present to County Council members a petition opposing the end of Metro’s free downtown bus service. Participants included homeless residents from Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (SHARE), which manages 15 shelters in Seattle.
SHARE participants said they would immediately close all of their shelters and camp outside the King County Administration building until Dec. 17, to protest a shortage of government-funded bus tickets for trips inside and outside what has been the Ride-Free Area.
“We want to draw attention to what will happen if we don’t have bus tickets. Homeless people will be on the street, unable to get to services and unable to get back to shelters,” said SHARE advocate Revel Smith.
SHARE has a permit from Seattle Parks and Recreation for to establish an encampment adjacent to the King County Courthouse through 8 p.m. Friday. Under the permit, they may pitch tents, but aren’t allowed to occupy them overnight, said parks spokeswoman Joelle Hammerstad.
Late Friday afternoon, King County announced it would distribute 44,000 charity tickets for bus rides, on top of 41,000 announced earlier in the week. SHARE will receive $50,800 in tickets out of $124,000 in this batch, according to the county. Many low-income and homeless people have relied on the Ride Free Area to get to medical appointments and social-service agencies downtown.
Friday’s protest, along with recent testimony by Tent City residents and Share/Wheel, nudged the county to action, said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Larry Phillips.
“An awful lot of homeless people were going to get stranded…” he said.
But Share participants said the tickets won’t get them through the winter. They said they’ll save those tickets for the period between Dec. 17 and Jan. 7, when the county releases additional subsidized tickets. Besides the special allotment, another 1.1 million tickets are being released countywide in 2012, half in Seattle half in the suburbs.
“We’re going to save the tickets for the colder weather and camp now while its milder,” said Jarvis Capucion, a SHARE board member.
The 95,000 subsidized extra tickets come from a new program in which King County Metro Transit offiers eight free ride tickets to motor-vehicle owners, as a rebate when they pay a new $20 car-tab fee for transit. The program is meant to encourage new transit customers, but motorists may also donate their eight-pack of tickets to social-service agencies.
The county is advancing Friday’s 44,000 tickets early, in anticipation of what motorists will donate in the fourth quarter, said Metro spokeswoman Rochelle Ogershok.
Phillips said the county needs to work on a long-term solution and not just wait for the next crisis.
SHARE received almost $400,000 from the city of Seattle for shelter and winter shelter operations. The organization’s contract requires them to provide shelter services. If they don’t, the city isn’t required to pay them, said David Takami, spokesman for the city Human Services Department.