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Two years ago, Tbilisi’s only night bus was introduced to connect the city centre with the airport. Now, it serves as overnight accommodation for the homeless.
In February 2017, the Route 37 bus going between Tbilisi’s central Station Square to the airport started running 24/7. The traditional small yellow buses were switched to the larger, modern blue models complete with heating.
The initiative was implemented by Tbilisi City Hall for tourists and locals not wishing to spend money on a taxi. However, the only night bus in the city quickly transformed into a portable shelter for the homeless, where the ₾0.50 ($0.20) ticket provides a warm place to rest.
While it started with just two or three people spending cold winter nights in the back row, a single bus now accommodates up to seven homeless people along with their belongings.
The first night buses enter Station Square at 23:30. Around that time, a group of homeless people gather and board separate buses in groups of two or three, making sure there are not too many people on a single bus. Some are intoxicated and fall asleep immediately, spending the entire night on the same bus, while others will get off at the airport and wait for the next bus.
The airport staff and bus drivers are quite familiar with the process.
‘It’s not just unpleasant, it’s to the shame of the country. The shame of our society, our shame’, bus driver Oleg Khutsilava says. ‘People who sleep here don’t go to the shelter [on Moscow Avenue] because they’re too drunk or unsanitary to be let in. So they come here. They get a ticket and their rights are the same as any other passenger. We feel sorry for them, but at the same time, it’s a lot of extra stress for us.’
Khutsilava recalls a few times when a homeless person urinated in the bus, and he had to stop at a pharmacy and clean up everything himself — there are no ticket controllers on the night buses to help the drivers.
Another issue is safety. ‘Every single night I’m afraid that they will hit their head on something as I’m turning the bus. Some of them pass out and can’t control their limbs. The safety of the passengers is my responsibility’, Khutsilava says.
The bus drivers do not have the right to ask a passenger to leave the bus, but they can refuse to let a drunk or abusive passenger on. However, some homeless people manage to find a moment when the driver goes out to eat or smoke and get in, pretending to fall asleep instantly.
According to Khutsilava, the majority of the passengers are young people. They are also often educated — ‘you can tell by the way they talk’, Khutsilava says.
‘A couple of nights ago I gave my seat to a 17-year-old boy’, one of the homeless passengers recalls. ‘He was my nephew’s age […] he later told me he wished he had a brother like me; maybe then he wouldn’t be where he was on that night’.
Other passengers, who are mostly either night shift workers or have to commute in the early morning hours, seem to be used to the situation.
‘People are sympathetic of them’, Khutsilava says. ‘It’s not hard to throw somebody who’s drunk off the vehicle, but everyone pities them’.
Meanwhile, the travellers who the buses were intended for do not use them in large numbers; those who get off at the airport are almost all homeless people waiting for the next ‘shift’.
Public complaints about the buses include the bad smell and unsafe rides, and claims that they are creating a bad image of the city for newly-arrived tourists. This issue has been discussed broadly on social media, but the Tbilisi Transport Company say they have no mechanism to stop the homeless from getting on the buses.
‘At one point, we created monitoring groups that would check passengers’ tickets, but [the homeless people] started to purchase tickets just like the other passengers. Right now we’re still looking for solutions’, Lela Topuridze, a spokesperson for the company, said.
Though he says ‘you can’t just throw people off’, Tbilisi Mayor Kakha Kaladze has not announced plans to construct more shelters.