Natalie Barnes was driving the public bus when a familiar rider named Richard walked on and shared a devastating life update with her.
A Milwaukee bus driver noticed a familiar passenger while driving the Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) public bus on October 13, 2018, five years ago. Natalie Barnes had seen the rider named Richard before, but something was different this time. He was unusually quiet. During her break, he approached Barnes while she was alone. That's when he uttered five words that would change their lives: "I am officially homeless now."
A surveillance video caught the duo's interaction from inside the bus. According to ABC News, Richard told Barnes he became homeless because his home was condemned. Barnes asked if it was the house he'd been staying in that, at one time, suffered a fire and Richard nodded. "I've been out on the streets for a week," he said. Hearing that, the bus driver offered to buy him a hot meal and warm up on the bus for the rest of her shift.
He declined the meal but stayed on and the video shows Richard riding along quietly in the back of the bus as Barnes covers her route, with passengers coming and going. Barnes did not want the homeless passenger to suffer, especially on a cold night and wanted to help him get a place to sleep. He stayed in the back of the bus for six hours while Barnes continued her route.
In the video, she asked Richard if she could get him food at a store she was going to visit the next day. During her other break, they were seen getting back on the bus with what looked like bags of food. "I don't know what to say but to say thank you," Richard can be heard telling her later. "I'll get it back to you soon."
"I want to help you," Barnes assured him. After their encounter, the two kept in touch. "We talk every couple of days and he thanks me every time he talks to me for helping him," Barnes shared. "He calls me his little guardian angel. I'm happy to say that he's progressing well."
According to USA Today, the driver eventually helped him find housing at a shelter through a local agency, Community Advocates. For her outstanding compassion, they gave her the Service's Excellence Award.
"Natalie's kindness, compassion and respect for this man in need are what MCTS Excellence is all about," said County Executive Chris Abele, according to a press release from the transit service. "Across Milwaukee County, employees are focusing on empowering people and strengthening the community, and we are investing resources throughout the County to reduce homelessness. Natalie demonstrated what we all need to do to fight homelessness: to look out for each other, to care for each other and to work together. I’m deeply grateful for Natalie’s actions."
The transit service also pointed out that not only did she help change one man's life, she also showed compassion to other passengers and brought extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out to riders who needed a meal. "At some point in our lives, everybody needs help," Barnes said. "I wanted to do what I could to help Richard in some way." She hopes their story will inspire the community to help however they can when it comes to those experiencing homelessness.