How Metro is responding to LA’s homelessness crisis

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For over a year beginning in 2011, Wallace Richardson lived in his truck in Los Angeles. During that time, with his means of getting around serving as his home, he took the bus every day. “I saw people sleeping​ on the bus, sleeping on the benches​,” he recalled. While he was homeless too, he at least had the privacy of his own vehicle. For others, the bus system was their sole refuge, offering a temporary escape from rough weather, triple-digit temperatures, or harassment. Being able to make fare meant a chance to rest for as long as the route allowed.

For many homeless individuals living in cities, a robust public transit network is an invaluable resource, providing shelter when the shelters are full, inaccessible, or indifferent. Still, rarely has responding constructively to homelessness been transit authorities’ official responsibility. But in Los Angeles, that’s beginning to change.

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Nationally, transit authorities’ policies for responding to homelessness vary widely. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Transportation Research Board and sponsored by the Federal Transit Administration, 28 of the 49 transit agencies surveyed had an informal policy in place for responding to homeless individuals. One-third of the agencies surveyed had a formal policy. The vast majority of agencies didn’t have specific staff for interacting with homeless individuals, but instead tended to train employees when they were first hired, and relied on partnerships with nonprofits, social services, law enforcement, and homelessness groups to handle most interactions with homeless individuals on public transit. And while those groups are better equipped than transit agencies, in Los Angeles, those organizations are also not able to fully meet the need for their services.

For years, Los Angeles has been experiencing a homelessness crisis. The populations of chronically homeless people in both the city and county have consistently risen in the past few years: According to the the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) 2017 tally, there are nearly 43,000 homeless people living without shelter in LA County—a whopping 23 percent increase from last year’s count. The numbers are also dire in the city of LA, which has approximately 25,000 homeless people, a 20 percent jump from 2016. When including the number of “Sheltered Homeless”—people LAHSA defines as “An individual/family living in a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living arrangement”—the county number jumps to nearly 58,000, and 34,000 in the city.

To put this in context, Council District 14, covering Downtown, Boyle Heights, and Northeast Los Angeles, has the highest number of homeless people: approximately 7,400. While district 14 has the highest total population, District 1 (which includes Echo Park, Koreatown, and Pico Union) saw a nearly 50 percent jump in its homeless population since 2016. Going by recent census statistics, nearly 3 percent of the constituents in Council District 14 are homeless. With this latest LAHSA count, it seems that LA has assured its spot as the American city with the highest number of chronically homeless people for the third year running.

What these figures don’t convey are the varied and complex reasons a person may become homeless. Economic downturns; increases in rent, housing prices, and the city’s overall population; insufficient access to social and health services—all these factors can lead to homelessness. Each person’s history is unique, and neither a single kind of response to homelessness nor a single housing type will work for everyone.

That makes it tricky for transit agencies to pinpoint what kinds of response services are most needed. According to the Transportation Research Board survey’s findings, responders need to be trained to understand not only the different contributing factors to homelessness, but also homeless individuals’ specific behavioral and medical needs.

Ready or not to respond to the current rise in homelessness, Metro and the California Department of Transportation are nevertheless reacting to it constantly by policing their properties and maintaining their facilities. Inevitably, they engage with homeless individuals who are using transit spaces for shelter.

Beth Steckler, deputy director for public transit advocacy group MOVE LA, told me that if she became homeless, “I would hang out in transit.” Train stations, bus stops, freeway shoulders—where else can you rest in an air-conditioned space on a hot day, or find a degree of seclusion? Prior to her work with MOVE LA, Steckler ran a homeless shelter in San Pedro, and has more than 25 years of experience working with transit and affordable-housing policy. “Transit is a place to capture people,” Steckler said. In transit spaces, outreach and referral efforts can be more focused.

The multiple transit agencies operating in LA County have their own policies when it comes to responding specifically to the homeless. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT), which operates city buses known as DASH and commuter express buses and issues parking tickets, allows homeless individuals to pay fines through community or support services, but that’s about it when it comes to dealing with homeless individuals.With no station infrastructure to maintain, LADOT’s communications director Bruce Gillman told Curbed that future homeless outreach will focus on information: “We plan to put some brochures on our DASH buses to offer info about outreach organizations.” Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus has no formal policy in place for responding to the homeless, but Suja Lowenthal, manager of community and government engagement, told Curbed that they will refer customers to appropriate Santa Monica city services “whenever a need arises with a customer” or from a complaint.

Up until recently, Metro’s response to homeless individuals using its facilities was to police them like any other passenger. A person could be cited or removed from a Metro station for not paying fare or for loitering too long. Law enforcement officers with Metro and the LA County Sheriff, as well as members of the Sheriff’s medical teams, were not specifically trained to respond to homeless individuals, but they did try to connect them to homelessness services.

“What that outreach looks like is maybe getting them into a shelter bed, getting them medical attention, things like that. But we’ve never had anyone exclusively ride our system and conduct that outreach. So it’s always been this informal process,” Jennifer Brogin, manager of Transit Security Special Projects with Metro’s Homeless Task Force, explained. As a transit agency, Metro’s main focus is protecting the health and safety of its riders: there’s noted concern that ridership will fall if Metro fails to address the growing presence of homeless individuals using the system for reasons other than transit.

Beginning in spring of last year, Metro formed the Homeless Task Force to tackle homelessness specifically. Among other stakeholders, including community members and Metro partners, Wallace Richardson was one of several people with lived experience of homelessness who contributed to the deliberations. Richardson, who had been in construction, was divorced in 2003 and moved in with his aging mother to care for her. When she died in 2011, he couldn’t afford the rent, so, at 58, he began living in the truck he had used previously for work. He appreciated that Metro was engaging with the issue, but thought they could be doing much more.

In October 2016, the task force received $1.2 million to create special outreach teams to respond exclusively to homelessness on Metro. These so-called C3 teams (County, City, Community), are contracted by the Department of Health Services and its subcontractor, People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), and are somewhat similar to previous efforts implemented in Skid Row. They’ll ride the system’s Red, Gold, and Green lines for a year, then report back to Metro to inform the Transit Homeless Action Plan.

“This outreach will provide Metro with case study information related to the needs that exist on the Metro system for homeless outreach, and a basis by which to advocate for resources through the county,” said Dave Sotero, a spokesperson for Metro. The C3 teams were also planned prior to the passage of Measure M—a countywide half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements that passed in November—which will help ensure that funding doesn’t disappear.

Even with the new focus on addressing homelessness on Metro, there are some roadblocks that are unique to the transit environment. For one, Metro encounters homelessness in its system at all times of the day and night, whereas most homelessness services are only open during regular business hours, making referrals difficult. Metro’s system also goes through multiple cities, spanning areas with different allocations of homelessness services. And because they’re often on the move, individual homeless people are difficult to track within the system, making it hard to get a reliable count of how many people need which kinds of help. “We’re looking to develop a system to keep track of individuals, to put a face and a name to these individuals,” Brogin explained. “So that it’s not a new case every single time.”

The C3 teams started outreach in May, and in the first two days, according to Metro numbers, connected four individuals with services—two of them were placed directly into housing. Ultimately, though, the efforts of the task force and the Transit Homeless Action Plan are palliative: Brogin stressed that Metro, as a transit agency, cannot be relied upon to be the sole provider of homelessness services. “We want to ensure that the people who are the experts are providing the resources. We don’t want to further complicate a homeless service network that is already complicated.”

At the state level, things get more blunt. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), which manages highway and freeway transit networks, responds to any illegal presence on its properties as a threat to transit accessibility and safety. According to Caltrans’s unofficial estimate, there are approximately 7,000 people living along the state highway system.

“It’s the duty of Caltrans maintenance to protect the public from these kinds of interruptions to traffic and keep delays at a minimum,” explained Michael Comeaux, a spokesperson for Caltrans. “We’ve had situations where homeless encampments have resulted in fires that have caused significant delays as damage was repaired.” But because Caltrans isn’t an enforcement agency, it relies on the California Highway Patrol, or local law enforcement, when engaging with any homeless person. And because Caltrans doesn’t have boots on the ground, it’s often responding to individual complaints about an encampment or presence on its property.

“We post prominent notices at multiple locations in the encampment area indicating that these areas are in violation of state law and we are going to clean them out,” Comeaux said. Caltrans gives at least 72 hours’ notice, and, accompanied by law enforcement, it removes all individuals before beginning any clean-up. “When we post a notice to vacate, it typically includes a list of shelters and other agencies that provide assistance to the homeless,” Comeaux added, but sometimes the notice “may only include the name and phone number for the local law enforcement agency.” Any personal property of value left at the site, so long as it isn’t hazardous material, is taken to a Caltrans facility and stored for up to 90 days for the owner to retrieve. Sometimes the location of that facility will be written on the notice; when it isn’t, there’s a phone number listed to find out where the belongings were sent.

In the last few years, the number of encampments removed by Caltrans in District 7 (made up of Los Angeles and Ventura counties) has increased significantly, rising from 115 in 2011 to 218 in 2013 and 491 in 2015. Caltrans’s response has largely been through preventative measures, making it more difficult, or less appealing, to access their properties. “In some cases if there is somewhat dense landscaping that shielded them from view, and it’s felt that less-dense landscaping would discourage further use of those areas for future encampments, then our landscaping crews would take a look at possibly altering the landscaping that’s there in order to achieve that,” said Comeaux.

Whether formal or informal, there’s obvious room for improvement in how transit agencies address homelessness. But thanks to the recent passage of city and county ballot measures, the gaps in coverage could be narrowed. Measure HHH, which passed last November, pushes significant funding toward more facilities and housing for the homeless population in the city of Los Angeles. Pete White, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN), which helps connect people living in poverty with resources, pointed out that Metro already owns lots of land in the city, which it could leverage toward more affordable housing. “Even if we’re not talking about 100 percent affordable projects on Metro property, Metro should definitely be down for some deeper level of mixed-income housing for marginally housed people in some of their developments,” said White.

At Metro, Jennifer Brogin also hoped to leverage the energy and funding behind Measure HHH and Measure H—the county measure passed in March to boost funding toward myriad homelessness services, including transportation and housing. “We’re advocating under Measure H and HHH to receive the outreach resources, not the money,” she said. “We don’t want to be the administrators of homeless services and outreach, but we certainly want to ensure that these people get help.” Ultimately, a transit agency isn’t going to provide the solution to homelessness, but it must play a part in an authoritative response.

While no plans are in place yet, there’s also a chance that Metro could use some of the funds allocated from Measure M to better serve the homeless. Efforts to keep fares affordable for lower-income or disadvantaged populations, and to create additional jobs, could benefit the homeless. Both Richardson and White pointed to reduced or free fares for the homeless as one of the best things Metro can do to help them: “Spend more money to help—money talks,” Richardson said.

The confluence of funding for homelessness and transit initiatives makes it easier for Los Angeles to coordinate its efforts. “I think this is our moment… We’ve done a lot of pilot projects and a lot of studying, and [had] strategies that have worked, but we’ve never had the resources to do them at the scale of the problem. So this is an enormous opportunity… But it’s going to take a little while,” said Steckler at MOVE LA. County supervisor and Metro board member Mark Ridley-Thomas was instrumental in the push for Measure H, and earlier helped assure funding for the C3 outreach teams. A statement issued from his county supervisor office highlights the continued coordination of Measure H and Metro: “The County hopes to get to a point where outreach activities are seamlessly coordinated both on and off Metro’s system, as part of larger community outreach efforts.”

With the constructive timing and a focus on coordinated efforts, transit agencies can deal a significant blow against homelessness. While advocates ultimately see addressing homelessness as a housing issue, the influence of transit is undeniable. Through their work with lower-income residents, the Alliance for Community Transit Los Angeles (ACT-LA), which promotes access to public transit, has seen how transit can decrease the likelihood of falling into poverty. “I think there’s a need to connect the work that transit advocates are doing with homeless groups, and going further, [homelessness] prevention work,” Mariana Huerta Jones, campaign and communications manager at ACT-LA, said.

Lower-income populations make up the bulk of Metro’s ridership, and Metro can help ensure that people in those communities have access to jobs, services, and resources, making them less likely to become homeless. Helping homeless people also helps Metro. “Because Metro has funding and programs that cities want, to help them with their streets or buses, Metro could have a competitive pot of money to encourage cities that are really doing things to stop displacement, to protect low-income renters,” said Steckler. With consistent, coordinated effort, the transit agency can make a huge difference for the homeless, and ultimately produce better service for everyone riding its system.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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