BART and San Francisco may partner to help homeless in train stations

Every day, hundreds of people call BART’s San Francisco stations home.

One hallway in particular tells the tale: A long stretch connecting Powell Station’s eastern stairwells with the escalators to BART trains features floor-to-ceiling advertisements, while at least a dozen homeless lay slumped against them on a daily basis.

Now BART may partner with San Francisco to help these homeless people up and out of the BART stations, and into city services.

BART’s latest budget proposal includes $50,000 to fund a partnership with San Francisco’s Human Services Agency to help the homeless. The budget is set for approval in June.

“There seems to be a missing component for effective outreach,” Armando Sandoval, BART’s community outreach coordinator, told the San Francisco Examiner.

Sandoval is the lone employee at BART dedicated to helping the homeless, but even his position is an innovation from BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey. BART’s police officers conduct homeless outreach right now, Sandoval said, but “officers don’t have that power” of linking people to homeless agencies.

That’s where San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team comes in.

BART is partnering with San Francisco to split the funding on one outreach “team leader” on the HOT team, according to BART, to engage chronically homeless people and help them establish care and permanent housing.

Sam Dodge, head of Mayor Ed Lee’s homeless office, HOPE, told the Examiner, “We have people in need down in the BART stations, while BART is open, but when BART is closed, they’re coming back into the streets.”

Details of the plan still have to be ironed out. For instance, it’s not clear if the funding would pay for new employees for the HOT team who would be dedicated to BART, or instead, pay for current HOT team members to allocate time exclusively to BART, Dodge said.

The help comes none too soon, as Sandoval’s reality is tough: He’s the sole dedicated homeless outreach worker at BART, covering four counties. Though the BART Police Department also helps the homeless find services, Rainey told the Examiner they are particularly challenged by the mentally ill homeless who most heavily use local resources.

Eighty percent of service requests arise from 10 percent of the homeless population, Rainey said, adding, “It’s easier for someone trained in social services” to link the homeless with the help they need.

Dodge agreed that professionals who specialize in homelessness can better navigate services.

“It’s very complex, our homeless care system,” he said, and BART’s new funding will be “buying into the system of expertise, and access to things like a Navigation Center, of a coordinated entry system.”

Lawrence Smith, a former homeless man who spent much of his time on the streets inside BART stations, said he had mixed experiences with BART police, who were both kind and domineering. He said he lived in BART stations for three years after the death of his mother and great aunt threw his life into a tailspin.

Smith, who grew up in San Francisco and graduated from Galileo High School in 1974, says his right thumb became infected from a mysterious bite after he spent the night sleeping in an escalator at the Powell Station. Ultimately, doctors amputated half of his thumb.

Smith has since turned his life around and is able to afford a room for rent, but he and his pit bull, King, still rely upon the kindness of BART patrons for food and money.

“I wouldn’t have made it without this BART station,” he said.

This is a unique approach for BART, which in the past has been criticized for trying to remove the homeless from its stations. In 2014, the agency utilized a little known transit code regarding crowd safety to cite and oust homeless, for instance.

Not all who are affected by BART station filth pin the problem exclusively on homeless people. Anh Nguyen, a daily BART rider who uses a wheelchair and must rely on feces and urine soaked elevators for his commute, said he’s experienced regular BART riders using elevators as a restroom.

“Homeless are a scapegoat to this larger issue,” he told the Examiner, adding that for cleanliness sake, BART should reopen its restrooms. BART has upped staffing of its station cleaning crews recently, according to the agency.

The plan also comes at a time of crossroads for San Francisco’s homeless population, as Mayor Lee, Supervisor John Avalos and others navigate how best to help The City’s numerous encampments. Lee recently called for all encampments to be cleared, and for those homeless to be sheltered — yet few details have emerged on where they would all go.

BART Board of Directors must ultimately approve the budget. Directors Nick Josefowitz, who represents San Francisco, and Rebecca Saltzman, who represents Alameda and Contra Costa counties, are supportive of the idea.

Saltzman has concerns, however.

“Partnership with [San Francisco] is good, but I don’t yet know what [San Francisco] is committed to providing,” she wrote to the Examiner in an online message.

Still, even a bit of help to direct homeless to basic services would be welcome, Sandoval said.

“Realistically, it will make a big difference.”

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