For many people experiencing homelessness, transit systems provide much-needed shelter, opportunities for donations from passers-by, and bathroom facilities. These individuals’ transit experience is unique from other users, whose stay within the system is often limited to the length of their commute or trip. Importantly, people experiencing homelessness who take shelter within the system–whether that means the day on a train or the night in a station–need to be respected as people existing within the public space that the system provides. It is crucial to highlight that the primary cause of homelessness is the shortage of safe, affordable, and stable housing, and related support services for mental illness, throughout so many cities in the United States.
Acknowledging the reality of this housing shortage and lack of adequate social services has two implications for transit agencies looking to improve the transit system for all users:
- People experiencing homelessness are often forced to live within the transit system because the alternatives–most often, shelters or the street–are not safe or appealing. Some shelters have rigid admission requirements, like being spotted by an outreach worker in the same location twice with a certain time range. Other shelters are feared for their frequent violence, theft, and unhygienic conditions. And still others just don’t have the capacity.
- The scope of the housing crisis extends far beyond what a transit agency, itself, is responsible for. Agencies cannot build housing or improve the shelter system. Transit agencies will need assistance from other agencies and government partners. Transit agencies should make clear the extent of the homeless crisis in their systems so that they can best identify their role in managing solutions and call on outside partners to assist with matters outside their expertise and ability to manage.
Without that type of cooperation with other agencies, transit agencies that focus their efforts simply on reducing the total number of people experiencing homelessness within the system will only worsen the quality of life for those individuals, who will most likely cycle back on to transit as soon as the episodic enforcement is over. And agencies often use armed police officers as the blunt instruments enforcing this strategy, relying on codes of conduct that discriminate against behaviors associated with people experiencing homelessness: for example, in addition to hiring 500 new police officers to clear people experiencing homelessness, the MTA recently enacted new policies forbidding passengers from having wheeled carts greater than 30 inches in width or length or from remaining in a station for longer than one hour.
Agencies sometimes justify such policies as guarding other transit users and transit workers, citing instances when a person experiencing homelessness may have defecated on the train or spit on a bus operator. These concerns are legitimate: transit workers should be able to work without fear of assault and bodily fluids present a serious operations issue–not to mention public health and sanitation–when they cause a vehicle to go out of service for cleaning. The question is: what type of professional is best qualified to address these situations: a social worker trained to help and equipped with a range of service options, or an armed law enforcement officer? As New York State Senator Liz Krueger states: “Not every time a crime happens on the subway is it a homeless person responsible . . . in fact, the vast majority of homeless people anywhere are more likely to be victims of crime rather than the people committing the crime.”
Someone sleeping on the subway should not automatically register as a potential criminal any more than any other transit user. Yet this is how people experiencing homelessness are stigmatized and policed. Human.NYC Executive Director Josh Dean, who has done extensive outreach within the New York City transit system, calls out the biases that should be familiar to many in the policing context:
“You may see someone and your immediate judgment is that that person may have a mental illness, but what it very well may be [is] that they spent the previous night on the subway and all night the cops were banging their batons on the seats and waking them up and asking them to sit upright. If you’ve ever seen someone who’s homeless and you see their feet and their ankles are swelling, that’s in large part because they’ve been asked to sleep upright. What we’ve seen is police officers who clearly don’t want to be doing this: that’s not what they signed up to do, but for whatever reason they’ve been asked to wake up homeless people and ask if they’re okay and if they need services and make sure they’re sitting up and not taking up more than one seat, even when the car’s empty.”
Fortunately, the American Public Transit Association has focused more research efforts on this issue in recent years and has collected some of the best practices from agencies across the United States. Several agencies have adopted particularly good strategies that can inform models elsewhere. These strategies recognize the important role that agencies play as part-time social services coordinator, treating homelessness as a persistent crisis and not just a problem to be “solved” within their respective systems.
Philadelphia: SEPTA’s unique Hub of Hope is a partnership with the nonprofit Project HOME and the City of Philadelphia to provide personal outreach throughout the system as well as physical space and resources, such as bathrooms, showers, food, and health services. Rather than pushing individuals out of the system altogether, SEPTA fashions the Hub of Hope as a gateway space situated within its own Center City sub-concourse to which outreach workers can direct those who may be in need of the services. Notably, SEPTA has not measured success in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the system: a statistic detached from the root cause of an affordable housing shortage and the growing number of people experiencing homeless, overall. Instead, it counts its positive interactions:
“In the first six months of operation, the Hub of Hope touched over 2,500 different people through more than 41,000 visits. The Hub of Hope has provided over 1,200 case management visits and facilitated over 1,240 placements into shelters, treatment, safe havens, and other locations. Each day, 350-to-400 people find comfort, care and dignity in the showers, loads of laundry, food and health services available at the Hub of Hope, and dinner is being served on weekends and expanding to five nights a week.”
San Francisco Bay Area: BART has established new resources for people experiencing homelessness that benefit the public, as a whole. In coordination with the San Francisco Department of Public Works, BART’s Pit Stop Program provides public bathrooms with attendants. Community organizations staff the bathrooms, which serves as a step to full-time employment. BART also employs attendants for its elevators to ensure that they remain clean and available to all users. Through public bathrooms and elevator attendants, the agency can curb unsanitary and unsafe behaviors like public urination or drug use in its system without increasing its police presence. Simple design choices like hard-surfaced (as opposed to cloth) seats on buses can ease the cleaning process and improve the sanitary conditions on transit, too.
Los Angeles: LA Metro has dedicated significant internal resources to homeless outreach, as well, recognizing, “We cannot police ourselves out of this.” While the agency has hired 22 police officers to address homelessness in the system, it has also hired 40 full-time social workers to conduct outreach. LA County has joined the effort by staffing 40 part-time social workers to supplement Metro’s investment. Partnerships and collaborations like these have great potential when the right partner organization is chosen and when the agency maintains an active role.