Homeless in transit - Page 2

A night at Powell Station shows how BART rousts the homeless in enforcing its new ban on sitting and lying

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A BART police officer wakes a person sleeping in Powell Station and asks him to leave.
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Terry's already been ousted due to BART's new rules. But on this day, some of the officers were more lenient. "[The officer] told me to cross my legs the entire time I'm here," he said, "so people walking don't trip over you."

They also asked him to leave the commuters be. "I don't ask for food or money," Terry said. He just wants shelter until he can appeal his eviction.

Counterintuitively, BART Police officers who already threw Terry out once are the reason he stays there. He said the streets are dangerous, and muggings by other homeless people are common. The gates to the station go down at 12:30am, and Terry sleeps next to them because he knows the BART police will keep the muggers away.

BART argues the new rule is about safety of the passengers. California Building Code 433.3.2.2 states, "There shall be sufficient means of exit to evacuate the station occupant load from the station platforms in four minutes or less."

Though Terry was glad the officers left him alone to sit, the Guardian saw BART police apply the law to other homeless people: usually the ones mumbling to themselves, or, frankly, the dirtiest ones.

The two men in each other's orbit were ousted. One tall and broad-shouldered officer woke the man sleeping in the red jacket.

"Excuse me sir, excuse me. Do you know about the new rules at BART?" he asked. After explaining the ban, he said "This is the first time, so I'll give you a warning, the second time I will cite you. The third time, you go to jail."

The officer recommended services they could call, together. He spoke kindly, even sweetly, but the result was the same as if he had been cruel: The man in the red jacket picked up his cardboard and went out into the streets.

We told Deputy Chief Jennings about the apparent selective enforcement, questioning the law had anything to do with safety. From our four hours of observation at Powell Station, it seemed to be applied only to the dirtiest or rowdiest people, or the ones specifically sleeping, we told him.

"Our policy is someone needs to be conscious, awake, and aware of their surroundings," Jennings told us. "There's no selective enforcement. We only have so many officers, so officers will be drawn more to someone who is not being quiet, or having a problem."

He also told us they had never enforced the building code before because no one had ever thought to, until the idea occurred to a newly promoted sergeant.

To its credit, BART is making inroads to help the homeless. First, transit officials went to Bevan Dufty, the director of the Mayor's Office on Homelessness.

"I was honest and said we don't have on demand resources and our shelters are full," Dufty told us. The Homeless Outreach Team is stretched to the limit. Dufty suggested BART hire its own help, which it did.

Its first full time Crisis Intervention Training Coordinator, Armando Sandoval, helps pair the homeless at BART stations with housing and other services. He targets his efforts on what BART calls its 40/40 list, which tracks the 40 homeless people that generate the most service calls to BART police. A BART press release said it placed 22 people with services within the last year.

"[Sandoval] hunts them down to see if he can work his magic with these folks," Jennings said.

Supervisor Jane Kim is working with Dufty's office to revamp BART's new policy. "They clearly stretched safety concerns," Kim told us. "It's one thing to offer services, but another to force people out."

BART's Quality of Life service calls doubled from 2013 to 2014, according to a BART quarterly report, generated by complaints like public urination and disturbing the peace.