- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2004

HOUSTON - As Yolanda Gilliard boarded the bus, wearing a mishmash of clothes and carrying a plastic bag filled with food and personal belongings, the homeless woman didn’t have to worry about unwanted stares or being shunned by other passengers.

She joined others like her on the 40-seat bus — a free service that gives some of Houston’s 12,000 homeless a better chance of making needed trips to clinics, shelters and social service agencies.

Miss Gilliard rode the bus to the county hospital to have her arm examined for loss of sensation. The ride saved her more than a three-mile walk from a homeless outreach center where she had eaten breakfast.

“This bus comes in handy. Trust me, we needed it,” said Miss Gilliard, who has lived on the streets or at shelters for several years. “There’s nothing but love on this bus.”

Dubbed Project Access, the program — one of the few like it in the country — marked its first year in August. It was developed by Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston, a consortium of 28 area agencies and organizations, after its annual survey of the homeless showed that transportation was one of the top barriers to them getting health care.

“People are able to actually get to the appointments that are going to ultimately help lead them off the streets. So there is a very practical sense of success with this,” said Frances Isbell, the group’s executive director.

Sometimes homeless people don’t take public transportation because they can’t afford the fare; sometimes they’re not treated well by other passengers, Miss Isbell said.

Project Access gives the homeless “hope and dignity, and a sense that people care,” she said. “That’s really important because … if somebody has been on the streets for very long at all, hopelessness becomes a way of life. You lose hope and how much effort [do you then] put into something that may help get you off the streets?”

Programs such as Houston’s are important because the services homeless people need are often scattered, making it difficult for them to get treatment, look for work and make it back in time to get in line at a shelter for a meal and bed, said John Lozier, executive director of National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

Several cities and regions provide free transportation for the homeless, including Cincinnati; Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Seattle; southwest Illinois; Orlando, Fla.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; southeast Missouri; and Florida’s Broward, Dade and Monroe counties.

Still, “we’re nowhere near providing the level of care needed by the homeless population, which is a terribly ill population,” Mr. Lozier said.

Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston asked homeless people what agencies and services they needed most on a daily basis, then developed a bus route with 13 stops around downtown and the Texas Medical Center area.

Using a $120,000 grant from the city, the group contracts with charter bus company Coach USA to run the route from 7 a.m. until about 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The total annual cost of the program is $155,000, with the difference made up by donations.

On the bus, Miss Gilliard recently struck up a conversation with Emmanuel Akioyamen, who came to Houston in January from Philadelphia to be closer to his 4-year-old son. Mr. Akioyamen said he left the East Coast with very little, including personal documents, and after arriving in Houston began living at the Star of Hope Mission, which offers shelter to several hundred men, women and children. It was a chance to begin anew and be a father to his son. The boy lives in Houston with his mother.

Mr. Akioyamen, 24, has taken the bus to get copies of his Social Security card, birth certificate and an identification card to help him get a job and eventually a place of his own. On this trip, he was visiting organizations with employment services and interviewing for jobs.

“It’s just using the resources out there to help you out,” Mr. Akioyamen said.

Dr. David Buck, president and chief medical officer for Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston, said the friendships that develop among riders and the relationships case workers build with them are benefits of the program.

“It’s a pretty tough world, and on the bus people are helping each other,” Dr. Buck said.

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