Days before New York City’s mayor unveiled a plan in February to address homeless people housed on the subway, three San Francisco police officers shoved a homeless woman down a flight of stairs at the Civic Center transit station .
The officers, members of the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Department, had been called there by a man who said the woman pelted him with sunflower seeds. After she arrived, they took her away from the runners and to a closed corner.
Then, instead of giving her a ticket or kicking her out of the transit system immediately, they waited.
A few minutes later, an outreach worker from the transit system arrived, accompanied by a social worker. After some coaxing, the social worker handed the woman a mask and persuaded her to leave the station for a city-run center where she could get temporary shelter, a shower and other services.
The interaction – in which officers defused a situation and then turned it over to trained outreach workers – offers a model for the future that New York officials say they are considering as they try to respond to the large numbers of unsheltered people in the metro system partly by strengthening the role of social workers and health professionals.
But it also illustrates the challenges for transit agencies like New York’s as they seek to resolve a seemingly intractable crisis that lies well outside the confines of their missions. Although the BART team members appear to have used a relatively human touch to steer the woman out of the transit system, they were still limited in their ability to guide her to stable and affordable housing.
As Mayor Eric Adams seeks to accelerate New York City’s continued recovery from the pandemic and address perceptions that it has become unsafe, he has been particularly focused on the rough sleepers. His efforts focused on clearing street and subway encampments and then attempting to direct those living there to city shelters, though the majority of people continued to refuse placement offers because they see the shelters as dangerous.
America’s transit systems — public spaces with long hours of operation and enclosed spaces offering more safety than streets — have long been de facto havens for the nation’s homeless population. For much of that time, transit agencies turned to the police to handle complaints by penalizing and expelling those who took refuge on trains, subways and buses.
But as homelessness has increased in recent years and conversations about inequities in policing have intensified, transit officials in cities across the country are exploring solutions that minimize the role of armed officers and integrate social service agencies.
“There is an opportunity for agencies to rethink their approach to public safety,” said Chris Van Eyken, program manager at TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group.
As part of this process, he added, many agencies have concluded that “if you have people who are struggling with your system, you’re going to make sure they have a connection to the resources they have. need”.
The urgency for new solutions has intensified during the coronavirus pandemic, which has worsened homelessness and left transit systems struggling to win back commuters who have fled.
By the end of March, transit ridership nationwide had only reached about 65% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group.
Homeless advocates and transit experts say the decline has laid bare a crisis that was more easily ignored when trains were packed and stations packed. It also, they said, contributed to some runners feeling more unsafe.
“There are so many fewer passengers that people feel vulnerable,” Van Eyken said. “Because they feel like they’re alone.”
Many transit agencies, including BART, the Los Angeles Metro, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority and the Philadelphia-area Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, have ramped up efforts to build homeless outreach teams.
Philadelphia transit officials have also begun providing services within their system, including a visitor center located at one of its busiest stations.
In New York, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said weekday subway ridership rebounded to about 58% of what it was in 2019. Customer surveys conducted by the transit agency found that many respondents cite safety and cleanliness as reasons to stay away.
Mr. Adams’ plan deploys police and mental health workers underground to remove people sheltering in the subway. He said the focus was on connecting people to housing, health services and advice, not aggressive policing.
Many advocates are skeptical, arguing that Mr. Adams’ plan relies heavily on police intervention and enforcement of the Metro Code of Conduct, which includes rules targeting the homeless.
The mayor ordered 1,000 officers to patrol the subway more actively each day, while promising to add dozens of social workers to the 200 already engaged in subway outreach.
In the first month of his plan, police made 719 arrests, issued 6,828 summonses – the vast majority for tax evasion – and kicked 1,981 people out of the transit system, despite it not being not clear how many of them were homeless.
During the same period, outreach teams spoke with about 650 people a day, on average, and placed just over 300 in shelter beds for the entire month, city officials said. .
Officials declined to say how many of those recently referred to shelters are staying there, and the mayor stressed that his efforts will take time.
But the initial numbers seemed to reinforce a key criticism among homeless advocates across the country: Whatever their approach, public transit systems can’t tackle homelessness without offering better options than mass shelters. crowded places that offer little privacy and can be dangerous.
“You need to be able to move people to housing and better shelters,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco. “If those kinds of things don’t exist, then you’re sort of dealing with the problem. And that’s what I think most transport systems end up with.
Other cities have moved faster than New York to deflect their efforts from the police, and their experiences offer lessons about the possible limits of Mr. Adams’ plan.
In the San Francisco area, BART, which before the pandemic served more than 400,000 riders a day, hopes to rezone land it owns to build housing. Its board has pledged to make 35% of that new housing affordable, and Daniel Cooperman, who oversees the system’s response to homelessness, said he hopes transit leaders can work with it. the counties they serve on housing policy.
In the short term, the system created a “Progressive Policing Bureau” which includes 20 crisis intervention specialists from social work backgrounds. Specialists work with officers to respond to incidents involving homeless people or people struggling with mental illness or addiction.
About 50% of calls to the BART police department involve homeless people, Cooperman said. In the past, uniformed agents were sent to remove them from the system, but they did not connect them to services. Inevitably, people came back.
“It’s not beneficial to keep shuttling people around,” Mr. Cooperman said.
Jessica Brusky, 30, who has been homeless since losing her job four years ago, said she had had rather smooth experiences with BART train attendants waking her up while she was asleep, but only to check that she was responsive and knew where she was going.
Still, there were times when some officers kicked her off the train after waking her up.
Ms Friedenbach said she found BART’s shift to a reduced police response encouraging. But she hoped it would shift more towards treating “homeless people as customers in need of help, rather than people creating problems for ‘real’ customers”.
In Philadelphia, Suburban Station sits in the middle of SEPTA’s subway and commuter rail network and has long been a daily gathering place for “hundreds of vulnerable people,” the agency’s police chief said. public transportation, Thomas J. Nestel III.
In the past, SEPTA police usually entered the station and chased the homeless. People would come back and the cycle would repeat itself, said chef Nestel.
In 2018, SEPTA — which before the pandemic averaged about one million trips a day on buses, subways, streetcars and regional railroads — ceded 11,000 square feet of space in a lobby under the train station at Project HOME, a non-profit organization that helps homeless people.
The group has converted the space into a reception center that offers temporary shelter, medical services, access to toilets and laundry, and assistance in finding accommodation.
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME, said the center serves up to 200 people a day.
SEPTA management plans to expand the program to other transit hubs. Chief Nestel is also working to hire more outreach workers – SEPTA currently has around 20, compared to a police force of around 260 officers.
Sister Scullion said she applauds SEPTA’s approach, but noted that transit police don’t always have outreach workers with them.
“Do bad things happen? Yes, they do, periodically,” she said.
Workers also still struggle to find acceptable housing for those in need. And less than 50% of those contacted by outreach workers agree to accept services, Chief Nestel said.
Without changes to the shelter system or more housing, he added, “we don’t have an answer yet for the larger group.”
These solutions are also rare in New York, which, unlike most other cities, is required by court order to provide emergency shelter to every homeless person.
New York’s sprawling subway has an additional hurdle: 24-hour service on virtually all lines and 472 stations, making it difficult for outreach crews to cover the entire system.
Officials acknowledge that the size of the system poses a challenge and that solutions tried elsewhere may not work as well in New York. But with the mayor’s plan in its infancy, they promise runners will soon see results.
“It’s going to take a little while,” Janno Lieber, president and CEO of the MTA, said at a recent press conference. “But I’m very optimistic, partly because of the intense commitment the mayor has made.”