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As shelters move farther out, network of buses connects homeless with downtown

The District government uses buses to help connect the city's increasingly outlying network of shelters with soup kitchens, social service bureaus and preferred panhandling blocks closer to downtown.

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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 6, 2010; 2:09 AM

Mark Fischer might not have a fixed address, but he sure has a fixed commute. On Monday morning, Fischer, 47 and unemployed for almost a decade, started his day as he always does: rolling out of bed at 6:15 a.m., pulling on his two jackets and topcoat and hurrying out to the sidewalk to catch the bus - the homeless bus.

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Fischer and a group of about 30 men, most lugging backpacks and bulging plastic bags, stamped their feet to hold off the pre-dawn chill in front of a D.C. shelter in an old warehouse on New York Avenue NE. Promptly at 6:35, an empty white bus, airport limo variety, pulled up. The doors opened and the men shuffled aboard for the trip downtown, to their daily rounds.

The homeless commute might be a little less refined than the one most Washington workers experience, but it is every bit as regular. Each morning, the District government operates a kind of free mini-Metro for the homeless, connecting the city's increasingly outlying network of shelters with soup kitchens, social service bureaus and preferred panhandling blocks closer to downtown.

Then, each evening, the homeless commuters join the outbound flow. With the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on G Street NW serving as depot, 10 scheduled buses load up to take the homeless back to shelters on the outskirts of town. The city spends about $1.8 million a year on transportation for the homeless, including the daily buses and a hypothermia van that patrols the streets on wintry nights.

"This just fits into an overall notion that being homeless doesn't eliminate your need to get to and from places to conduct your life," said Clarence H. Carter, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, which funds the bus system through a subcontractor. "Everybody's got to commute."

Fischer has become adept at this particular version of the morning slog. He hung back, knowing from experience that pushing too hard to get a seat can result in a shove against the bus wall.

"It's better to let the big guys go first," said Fischer, who stands just over five feet tall and ended up with a spot near the back.

Some shelter residents rely on the city bus service to reach their jobs, such as working pickup shifts on eviction crews or carrying sandwich boards on union picket lines. Others fill the business hours with a grind that is more about wandering and waiting. They line up for charity meals, hope to get some face time with a social worker, kill hours at a public library table or browse at a bookstore magazine rack. Some sit on curbs with cups held out to passersby.

Whatever their routine, they prefer to do it downtown rather than out in the more sparsely populated neighborhoods where the District's free beds are now located.

"There is just nothing out here," said Stephen Butler, a two-year resident of the District's 801 East Shelter on the mostly deserted grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast. "You get stranded here, you'll be lucky to get one meal."

The city's shelters generally close during the day, so most residents head downtown, wait out the clock on nearby sidewalks or find hiding places around the wooded campus.

For Fischer, the early-rush ride down New York Avenue was quick and quiet. In the evenings, folks might sing along with the radio, he said, and the drinkers in the crowd might be more primed to shout and yammer. (He recently saw two passengers exchange swift and surreptitious punches in the aisle, bringing aboard an earlier sidewalk altercation.) But as on most mass transit systems, mornings tend toward the mellow.


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