Visual aid

Hours of 30-second videos play key role in swaying lawmakers to consider reducing bus fares for the homeless

Last year, two 30-somethings and a few interns and friends scoured the streets and shelters of Minneapolis to talk about bus rides. The Metropolitan Council was in the process of considering a 25-cent fare increase, and the group was concerned about the impact it would have on the city’s lower-income and homeless populations.

They were armed with video cameras and three questions:

What’s your name?

What do you use the bus for?

How would a fare increase affect your life?

The results are captured on the YouTube channel of St. Stephen’s human services, an hours-long gallery of stern looks, squinted eyes and angry dimples. No humor here.

Grey-haired, rugged Pat has a tired, exhausted glance. He opposes bus-fare increases. Daniel’s eyes, already serious, are cast in a shadow. He opposes bus-fare increases. Mary has the face of a smiler, but she scowls. She opposes bus-fare increases.

As do 406 others. That’s how many faces Joshua Lang and Rich Johnson captured: 409 unanimous voices of dissent.

Lawmakers noticed.

Despite increasing the fare by a quarter in October and currently weighing another 50-cent hike, the Metropolitan Council now is considering a different, lower-cost approach for nonprofits that serve the jobless and the homeless. The Legislature is leading the charge — a Senate bill introduced last month with enthusiastic, bipartisan support would allow eligible charities to purchase an unlimited number of half-priced bus tickets.

Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-60), one of the bill’s authors, said much of the credit for the recent success belongs to Lang and Johnson. The pair say they’ve simply figured out how to be democratic in a technological world.

* * *

"How many signatures do you think legislators have seen?" a determined Johnson asked in between bites of a sausage-and-cheese breakfast on a frigid February morning. "How many?"

"Exactly," Lang responded.

It was only 10 a.m., but the two were focused. They were making a point: Four hundred and nine faces tell 409 more stories than a sheet of scribbled names.

"Video testimonies are the modern signatures," Johnson said, taking a sip of coffee.

They said they could have tried sending people to testify at the Capitol, but that would have been much more difficult. It’s hard enough sometimes for legislators to make it to hearings. Plus, public speaking is more daunting than looking into a camera.

Lang and Johnson share a basement room in the Whittier-based St. Stephen’s, a workspace with outreach pamphlets, a fridge, a coffeemaker, a computer and a printer. They are the church’s human services program, which Lang founded in 2005 after working at several homeless shelters.

He’s tall, skinny — borderline lanky — only 33 but already showing signs of graying hair, evidence of years of country-to-country hopping and long hours as a social worker. In years past, the Twin Cities native worked elections in Guatemala and provided aid in India. In the latter country, a mentor told him to focus his energies close to home.

Johnson comes from a different mold. He sounds, looks and acts differently. He’s a short but burly man, black beard on his face, knit cap on his head, long black hair reaching over his back, tattoo on his right forearm, bruise on his left elbow, adamant. He rat-tat-tats from subject to subject. One moment he’s talking about being a Native American, Santee Dakota, Californian Chumash, Santa Ynez Mission Chicano. Next he tells about his years growing up on the streets. The Streets. East Los Angeles.

Still, the men are kindred spirits. They both are passionate about their work, they both know inequalities in the world around them, and they both refuse to accept it.

"I see human rights violations happening around me every day in this country," Lang says in a St. Stephen’s biography. "I can’t enjoy what I have while this is happening."

* * *

Lang and Johnson are happy to be the behind-the-scenes soul of the cause. Dibble is more the public face, although he’s not alone. He has four co-authors on the bill, sharing credit with such senators as fellow Minneapolitans Linda Higgins (DFL-58) and Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-62).

Republican Sen. Julianne Orton is another co-author, lending immediate bipartisan support. Her involvement comes as little surprise to Lang and Johnson, who said the issue has little to do with party politics.

"It’s just a good idea," Lang said.

That seemed to be evident at the bill’s first hearing, which was "extremely successful," Dibble said. When this edition of the Downtown Journal went to press, the bill was slated to appear before the Senate Transportation Committee.

Dibble was careful to say anything is definite, a sentiment echoed by Judd Schetnan, government affairs director with the Met Council. Schetnan said the council is interested in the ideas brought forward, but it’s also concerned about its own $45 million operating deficit. Balancing that with the homelessness cause has been the topic of many recent internal conversations, he said.

If a bill ends up passing, it probably would look very different from its current form, Schetnan said — something that hopefully pleases every side.

"The bill is really raw at this point," he said. "It’s very early in the process."

Even if nothing comes to pass, this is more than Lang and Johnson said would have happened had they not taken their cameras to the streets. They believe they’ve figured out a way to get politicians invested.

"This is true ‘for the people, by the people,’" Johnson said. "Makes me feel good as an American."

Cristof Traudes can be reached at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or on Twitter at @sctraudes.