SAN JOSE -- It took a while for Hector Schneider to get his act together, and only a little longer to get some wheels -- in the form of a discount transit pass.
"I made the wrong decisions, hung out with the wrong people, got into trouble," he said one early April morning at a social service agency near downtown.
The 41-year-old with thick, black hair and expressive, round eyes was explaining a big gap in his life. Although he graduated from San Jose State 10 years ago, he's become homeless, sleeps at transportation centers and earns about $300 a month in tips as a bathroom attendant at two nightclubs. Plus, he has diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Schneider has bounced back enough to study computer networking at Heald College in Milpitas. He attends church weekly, and volunteers at a downtown San Jose soup kitchen every Monday. But getting to his two jobs has been difficult without transportation.
That got a little easier, however, since the folks at Sacred Heart Community Service recommended Schneider for a heavily discounted, $25 monthly VTA bus pass, a chance to participate in a pilot program that could become a lifeline for the working poor. The passes normally cost $70.
"This is for people who are falling through the cracks, people who don't have other transportation options," said Colleen Valles, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. "It's expensive getting around this valley."
The VTA started TAP, the Transit Assistance Program, in August after months of lobbying by People Acting in Community Together, a faith-based, grass-roots organization headquartered in San Jose.
"We subsidize bus passes for students and even high-tech workers," said Sandy Hietala, a PACT advocate. "Why not for the working poor who need public transportation even more?"
Under the two-year pilot program, paid for with a $1.4 million grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the VTA sends 1,000 monthly passes to a few social service agencies in the county. The agencies screen and select the recipients, and it's far from first come, first served.
In Gilroy, Juan Hernandez, a department store janitor, had to state and verify his income and expenses, and those of his wife. He must show up every month on time to pay for his pass or lose it. He fills out questionnaires asking how much he used the pass, where he traveled and for what purpose and then explain how the discount is improving life at home and work.
Hernandez shrugged. "It helps put food on the table."
He works seven days a week at a big-box store in Morgan Hill, but for only two or three hours each day. His paycheck doesn't justify buying a $70 pass, but the discounted pass is worthwhile.
"If I didn't have this pass," Hernandez said, "I would have to go back to Home Depot every morning as a day laborer. That's what I was doing before."
Schneider sees another, unexpected benefit of the discount transit passes. They look just like high-end, shiny "Clipper" cards popular with affluent transit commuters.
"It actually helps you blend in with the people who pay the full amount," he said. "Your pride is intact. You aren't seen as a loser every day."
VTA spokeswoman Valles said the agency and federal government will study the questionnaires as they go. Making the discount permanent will depend, she said, largely on how it can increase ridership for the passenger-hungry agency and on how the $25 passes can help the working poor.
Schneider offered a clue on the latter.
A government Pell Grant covers his tuition at college, but his payouts for food, a storage locker and a cheap cell phone don't leave him with much. He'll have even less left in his pocket if and when he finds a cheap room to rent. The pass gets him to his two jobs and medical appointments with ease and respect. More important, it keeps him on track to his main goal.
"I'm not trying to stay in this program," Schneider said. "I'm trying to get ahead in life and then off of it."