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Mass Transit Takes on Bay Area Homelessness Crisis

BART, the region's rapid transit rail system, is investing significant time, money and staff into social services. It’s a big departure from the agency's core mission — running the trains on time.

BART Crisis Intervention Specialists Ontreal Wiltz, left, and Morey Deundra Moore, center, talk with a man at the Fruitvale Station in Oakland, Calif. The BART transit agency is venturing into the area of homeless services to deal with an ever worsening homelessness crisis on trains, and in stations.
(Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
(TNS) — Historically, BART has had one job — getting riders from Point A to Point B. Now, the transit agency is taking on a new, uncharacteristic role — helping the region’s thousands of homeless residents find shelter, food and additional aid.

As the homelessness crisis grows and those with nowhere else to go increasingly seek shelter on BART trains, stations and along its tracks, the transit agency is investing significant time, money and staff into social services. It’s a big departure from BART’s core mission — running the trains on time — and represents a major shift in how unhoused people are treated on Bay Area public transportation. But while it’s a first in the Bay Area, BART’s new focus is part of a larger statewide trend of transit agencies compelled to become social service providers.

“The situation that the Bay Area’s in, it just became impossible to ignore,” said Daniel Cooperman, whom BART hired in 2021 as its first-ever homelessness czar. “And so we want everyone to be able to have a safe and comfortable time and ride while they’re with us, and also make sure that folks that are sort of stuck in the system have somewhere to go.”

The number of unhoused people counted in downtown San Francisco BART stations increased 20 percent in the second quarter of last year compared to the year before — with an average tally of about three dozen a month.

In an effort to stop arresting, citing or asking unhoused people to simply “move along,” BART hired 10 transit ambassadors and 20 crisis intervention specialists tasked with de-escalating tense situations and offering shelter beds and other resources to those in need. Last month BART released an official “Homeless Action Plan” that lays out potential next steps — including spinning out a new nonprofit to raise funds for aid. This year, the agency is spending about $11 million on homelessness programs.

It hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. An unflattering report from the agency’s inspector general earlier this month revealed that BART spent $350,000 on a two-year outreach program that resulted in just one person obtaining shelter. Staffing shortages within BART Police mean there aren’t enough officers to accompany outreach workers. BART also has to grapple with the region’s inadequate supply of beds, mental health resources and addiction services. And because BART is a transit agency, it isn’t eligible for helpful state and federal homelessness funding.

While BART navigates these hurdles, it has to maintain a delicate balance of addressing homelessness without straying too far from its main mission.

BART isn’t alone in those struggles. While it’s the first transit agency in the Bay Area to take such a significant leap into social services, others in the state are making similar moves. In Los Angeles County, LA Metro has teams of outreach workers looking for unhoused people to help and the agency sometimes uses its own funds to pay for rent, job training and medical bills for those in need. Sacramento Regional Transit recently hired a social worker to help people camped along its train tracks and in its bus shelters. Nationally, a group of transit agencies meets regularly to discuss how to respond to homelessness.

It’s not out of choice, said Desarae Jones, who spearheads homelessness programs for LA Metro.

“I don’t know that I would call it a trend. It’s more of a necessity,” she said. “We’re seeing homelessness on the rise in the communities we’re serving, and we’re seeing gaps in the services that exist today, so we’re, as transit agencies, having to fill in those gaps.”

There were more than 171,000 unhoused people living in California as of last year — a 6 percent increase from 2020.

On a recent afternoon, Morey Deundra Moore and Ontreal Wiltz, two BART crisis intervention specialists, donned their uniforms and set to work riding trains and patrolling stations in Oakland. They carried the overdose-reversing drug Narcan (which they’ve had to use only once) but no guns or handcuffs — they’re social workers, not police officers. They approached people slumped over on train seats and station benches, those without shoes and anyone else who seemed to be struggling, and asked if they could help. They were friendly, offering smiles and fist-bumps.

At the Coliseum station, Moore and Wiltz saw a man talking to himself and told him they could get him into a shelter that night. The man smiled. He did want help, he said. But soon his attention wandered and he was once again responding to the voices in his head. After several gentle attempts, all Moore and Wiltz had been able to coax out of him was his name. Eventually, he walked away, ripping off his shoes and socks as he went.

“At this moment, there’s not much we can do,” Moore said.

Nine out of 10 times, people refuse their help. When that happens, Moore and Wiltz hand them a business card, hopeful that maybe they’ll be ready to accept help tomorrow.

Last year, about 2,300 people accepted referrals to shelter beds or other services through BART.

BART also has a patchwork of partnerships with local nonprofits — including La Familia, which does outreach at stations in Alameda County. They bring people to CARES, a Fruitvale center that gets them into residential addiction and mental health programs. Since they started in June, 40 people have come to CARES through BART, said Jason Toro, La Familia’s chief program officer.

It’s “system-changing work,” he said. But it’s not perfect. Because of the area’s lack of resources, those at CARES find a bed just 70 percent of the time.

Advocates who work with the unhoused community are keeping an eye on BART’s new approach. So far, Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the San Francisco-based Coalition on Homelessness, likes what she sees. That hasn’t always been the case. In 2014, the Coalition staged a protest after BART started citing people sleeping in its stations.

“Historically it’s been a more troubling direction that they would take,” Friedenbach said. “This new direction of trying to connect homeless people with services is much more positive.”

Later in their shift, Moore and Wiltz met a man on an Antioch-bound train who said he wanted help finding housing and food. He agreed to meet at the Fruitvale station the next day.

“That was good,” Moore said, after they got off the train. Wiltz agreed. “I feel like he actually might show up.”

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