Asisi Lazzaarius, (left) and Alphonso Gasdebum sit in the Powell BART station on Thursday, April 14. BART is planning to partner with homeless outreach organizations in The City to provide resources to those who sleep in the underground BART and Muni stations. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

EDITORIAL: War on homeless hurts trust in San Francisco

The homeless have long been a part of San Francisco BART stations. Homeless people, sleeping or sitting among their belongings on the white floors of the downtown stations are no doubt a nuisance or eyesore to some commuters and tourists, but for the most part they are unobtrusive. The stations offer a bit of peace from the streets and an escape from the weather for those with nowhere to go, and, for the most part, BART authorities seem content, or at least willing, to let them be.

This policy of benign neglect might soon end.

As the San Francisco Examiner reported last week, BART is looking to partner with The City to bring homeless people out of BART stations and into city services.

The big question is whether this effort to bring the homeless out of the stations would be accomplished with helping hands or a firm push.

The City’s relationship with its homeless, always a vexed issue,
has taken on more complex and troubling dimensions in recent months. The recent litany is long and alarming: Mayor Ed Lee’s vow to clear Market Street of homeless during Super Bowl week; the sweep of a large homeless encampment on Division Street last month; and another last week on Shotwell Street, following San Francisco police shooting and killing a homeless man in an incident that still hasn’t been fully explained or adequately investigated.

Last week, Lee called to end all encampments in The City. Supervisor John Avalos countered the mayor’s tough approach by proposing more humane rules for shutting down encampment, such as making sure a path to housing was available before breaking down a camp. But the Mayor’s Office quickly shot down the idea as unworkable.

Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on the Homeless, says this recent aggression against the homeless has been particularly brutal.

In an op-ed in today’s Examiner, she writes, “The voices of those forced to live on our streets have been nearly eliminated from the discussions currently before elected officials today. Instead, we hear top officials shouting for a failed policy that will lead us nowhere.”

Amid this mounting pressure on the homeless comes this plan to address homeless people in BART stations.

For BART, the plan is to bring in The City’s Homeless Outreach Team into stations to engage homeless people and help them establish care and permanent housing.

BART directors on Thursday discussed a $50,000 request to fund the partnership, with the budget set for June approval.

Right now, just one person, Armando Sandoval, BART’s community outreach coordinator, is dedicated to helping the homeless throughout the system. As a result, BART’s police officers are the ones engaged in homeless outreach by default, Sandoval told the Examiner. By integrating The City’s homeless services, more people who need shelter and services can find them.

That’s the hope, at least.

Sam Dodge, head of Mayor Lee’s homeless office, 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.”

In 2014, BART started a campaign to ticket and expel homeless in the system, citing a threat to crowd safety. So is this new effort a sign of a more humane approach?

Specifics are yet to come, and the details, we all know, is where the devil resides. He can also lurk in motives, and it’s unclear at this point where the impetus for this effort lies: Is it really to help the homeless or merely to clean out the stations?

Lee’s administration no longer has the benefit of the doubt regarding its intentions in how it handles The City’s 6,000 souls who live on its streets without a home.

San Francisco has a lot of work to do if it intends to win back the trust of those who sleep on the streets and the advocates who fight for their well-being.

Michael Howerton is the editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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