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By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate EditorIn an effort to step up security and safety measures, transit agencies increasingly are taking on the challenge of what to do with people who loiter, sleep or panhandle in rail stations, on platforms or trains.Some agencies — the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco and Societe de transport de Montreal (STM) in Montreal, Quebec, for example — are trying to connect homeless individuals with community services that can help them improve their lives."Our transit agencies are working with local social services in their jurisdictions to address these problems, to assist them in finding other locations where they can sleep and be fed, clothed and keep warm," says Greg Hull, assistant vice president for public safety operation and technical service at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Homelessness is part of a continuum of security matters that transit agencies are grappling with, Hull says. What to do with people sleeping or panhandling in transit facilities falls under what he categorizes as "quality-of-life" security concerns that, if left unaddressed, can create opportunities in the minds of wrong-doers looking to cause harm to people or damage to property. When it comes to homelessness — a societal problem that goes beyond just a single organization's control — some agencies aim to do more than enforce policies that ban loiterers from agency property, he says. Two years ago, the STM developed a pilot project that uses some of its Metro subway stations as service points for people living on the streets. Under the program, an outreach person meets homeless individuals in Metro stations and tries to put them in touch with needed social, medical or mental health care. After starting the project at one station two years ago, STM expanded it to five other Metro stations last year. At the annual APTA Rail Conference held in Montreal in 2014, STM officials talked about their experience with the program during a panel discussion on rail security.And in San Francisco in 2013, the Bay Area Rapid Transit's (BART) police department hired a full-time "crisis intervention training coordinator and community outreach liaison" to train BART police officers in how to identify and interact with the homeless without the contact escalating into a threatening confrontation. The coordinator, Armando Sandoval, also works to connect transients with the appropriate social and health service providers. Sandoval, who previously worked with homeless people who have mental illness or alcohol or drug addictions, is one of only a few full-time U.S. transit agency staffers whose job is dedicated to addressing the homeless problem.
Sandoval's hiring is part of a broader initiative to move homeless people out of BART facilities when they're not using the system for transportation. The agency has come under fire from advocacy groups since July 2014, when police began enforcing a ban on people sleeping in BART stations. BART officials counter that the ban is necessary to protect the public if transit facilities have to be evacuated quickly in an emergency. Under the policy, police issue a warning before forcing someone to leave the premises. A person who continually violates the ban can be arrested and jailed. Homeless advocates say the policy is harsh and unfair, especially in a city like San Francisco where shelters are at capacity and waiting lists for subsidized public housing are long, if not closed.To be sure, dealing with the problem of homelessness is a delicate balance, and that's where Sandoval comes in. Each day, BART police give him a priority case list of chronically homeless individuals found in the BART system. Most of those on the list suffer from mental illnesses and/or addictions. Sandoval spends his day reviewing the cases and communicating with social service and mental health/addiction treatment professionals in the counties that BART serves to try to coordinate services for those priority cases.Sometimes Sandoval is able to locate individuals on the list, talk with them directly, learn more about their personal situation and offer assistance. About half refuse help. He tries to build rapport and trust with as many as he can. But getting a chronically homeless person cleaned up, and into permanent housing and a treatment or recovery program is a long road, he says.Nevertheless, Sandoval has experienced "quite a few" success stories since starting this job last summer."We hold on to those stories dearly because we know how infrequent they can be," he says. "It's something we can't demand. A [homeless] person just doesn't jump on board. This is reality and a long-term process." He's looking forward to more of those success cases as the BART program evolves."I've been doing this kind of work for 30 years and it really is an incredible thing to see a law enforcement agency take on the challenge and champion something like this," Sandoval says. "It's an example that hopefully will inspire other transit agencies to do the same."