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BART and Muni elevator attendants shoo away urinators, drug users

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A man in a wheel waits to board an elevator at Powell Street BART station after an employee mops it clean. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner file photo)

Tawanna Haines was halfway done with her first shift as a BART elevator attendant when one Civic Center BART passenger in a wheelchair rolled into her elevator, bumping hip-hop from a speaker underneath his seat. Haines danced to the beat. He smiled.

“When did y’all start doing this?” he asked, adjusting the brim of his black Golden State Warriors’ cap.

“We started today actually,” Haines told him. “We’re trying to provide a sense of safety and let you know that we know what’s going on in the elevators. We hear it, we see it.”

SEE RELATED: <Pilot program will provide attendants to stop people from urinating in BART, Muni elevators

Almost as if on cue, the elevator doors opened to Civic Center, where a long-haired man stood in the elevator doorway, leaning into a long slice of tinfoil and lighting it. Haines leaped to action.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” she said, snapping her fingers to call his attention. The long-haired man jumped back, and the man in the wheelchair rolled out, unencumbered. “Thank you,” he told Haines.

So goes the first day in action for BART and Muni’s new elevator attendants, a joint venture between the two agencies to guard against urination, drug use and other unsavory activities at Civic Center and Powell station elevators.

At a news conference Monday morning, BART Board of Directors member Bevan Dufty praised Hunters Point Family, the nonprofit who staffs the attendants.

“Having been out sweeping at 16th and Mission, the staff there are incredible,” Dufty said. “They know how to connect and talk with people, they know how to get the job done.”

Lena Miller, founder of Hunters Point Family, said that despite the dirty nature of the job, she’s “honored” her nonprofit will take the lead in maintaining San Francisco elevators.

“Hunters Point Family has been called in to bring community cleanliness and dignity to some of our most vulnerable members of society,” she said. Taking the elevators recently, she said “the stench of urine hit me in the face. As we went down in the elevator it continued to strangle me. It looks like someone set fire to the elevator, over and over.”

The six-month pilot is funded by $1.6 million each from the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and BART, which share responsibility for some San Francisco subway stations. That funding will also go toward pop-up bathrooms to help those who seek to urinate in the elevators.

But though the attendants will tisk-tisk and shoo away people who try to use BART elevators as bathrooms, they aren’t police.

Above, elevator attendant Tawanna Haines has a colorful encounter on her first day.

Should the attendants come into conflict with a rowdy person in the elevator, the protocol is to reach out to their supervisors, who contact BART police or The City’s Homeless Outreach Team, said Tim Chan, acting stations planning group manager at BART. The attendants took de-escalation training.

“We don’t want them to be in danger,” Chan said. “Their job if something happens is to de-escalate the situation.”

In a full week, BART and the SFMTA will have 35 people staffing three shifts per elevator, as well as “floating” supervisors to bop back and forth between the stations to monitor the elevators. They’re not just babysitters: attendants collect vital elevator demographic data for the agencies, Chan said. “We have a baseline,” he said, and the agencies are hoping to see an increase in the number of people using the elevators, especially people “visibly” with disabilities, using strollers or with luggage.

There’s no commitment yet for an expanded rollout at other stations, he said, for the obvious reason: “It’s a big chunk of money.”

Powell and Civic Center stations are the filthiest stations “by a lot,” Chan said, highlighting the need for those stations to be in the pilot. But further expansion would likely address 16th Street BART next.

Chan said the SFMTA and BART both have money set aside for this program over the next year, but “what happens beyond that is up to the data.”

The program is only into its first day, but already Haines said she had seen many people check the elevator to see if it was empty — only to walk away once they saw her. And that newfound cleanliness is garnering rave reviews. TseraChoky stood in Civic Center station, by the elevator, with two children in a stroller. She told the San Francisco Examiner she’s seen human excrement in their elevator rides.

“I don’t know why people pee in there,” she said, but “It feels great to see a clean elevator.”

Attendant Tawanna Haines welcomes a rider on the first day of a new program staffing elevators at San Francisco Muni and BART stations. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

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