As the riders return to work, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) has made it a priority to help people experiencing homelessness residing in trains by connecting them to resources and housing in San Francisco. With the lack of resources from local governments, BART is trying to find the most humane way to reduce the number of unhoused riders through its newest initiative.
The Bay Area’s transportation system, referred to commonly as BART, has acted as a haven for unhoused individuals for several years. However, as commuters return to the trains amidst increased calls back to in-person work, the push to reduce the number of unhoused riders has increased. BART is pushing forwards with a new plan to help the unhoused, while asking the local and state governments for assistance as the agency tries to bring back returning commuters.
Daniel Cooperman, senior manager of social service partnerships for BART, stated in an interview with Day Area News Group that, “…in the light of the pandemic, with so many shelters closing and capacity being limited, BART has been the one constant that has been open.” According to BART’s recent marketing and research department survey, there is a significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness riding the train than in the previous year, averaging about 160 individuals per 100 train cars on weekends and 64 per 100 cars on weekdays.
BART director Bevan Dufty — former director of HOPE, an organization aimed at finding housing for displaced people in San Francisco — told the Chronicle that it was common during the colder months for many people experiencing homelessness to call 911 at the end of a trail line to get a lift to a warm emergency room for a few hours. If they do not have anywhere else to go, people experiencing homelessness may sleep at the gates of the stations until they open again.
BART’s response to the increasing number of individuals experiencing homelessness on the trains was its Ambassador program launched in February 2020. The Ambassador program put unarmed and uniformed teams on trains to address the quality of life infractions. Since its debut, the program has had 12,000 “educational contracts” with people and “checked in” with 10,000 people. BART’s new crisis intervention specialist, an extension of the already existing Ambassador program, is set to handle more serious situations that Cooperman calls BART’s “progressive policing bureau.”
The progressive policing bureau is one of the many solutions BART has come up with in the past year and a half. While BART wants to do more to help the unhoused people in San Francisco, the lack of assistance and resources from local and state governments has left the transit system overwhelmed with the responsibility to act. “It is not our fault that these systems are so broken around the Bay Area that we can’t make the connections. And I think on some level, our riders understand, they’re just frustrated and scared because they see a situation that is unchecked.”
Many believe that BART’s efforts to help the unhoused are ineffective and come off as a way to promote a safer space for riders returning to the trains after the COVID-19 pandemic. “[Homelessness] is part of broad, systemic, and fundamental failure, and to ignore this problem and wish it away and pretend that BART shouldn’t play a role is the most toxic and destructive way to view human life…At BART, we will only approach homelessness with compassion,” said BART Director Janice Li.
BART has partnered up with other non-profit organizations like All Home to find temporary or long-term housing solutions for the people experiencing homelessness residing on the trains.
It seems that BART is taking a human-first approach to the homelessness crisis in San Francisco by shifting away from armed enforcement pushing people out of the stations and into the streets. Unfortunately, the lack of resources puts BART in a difficult situation as they attempt to house those experiencing homelessness and promote a safer space for transit riders.